Easy conversations

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Anticipating a difficult conversation? Want help? There’s plenty to be had, last week’s KJR being just one example among many. The short version: Know your goals, and plan for both the situation and how the other person is likely to respond, to the extent you’re able to anticipate it.

But how about the easy ones? The hard ones are … well, the word “harder” comes to mind … but just because they’re hard, that doesn’t make them more important.

And just because the other ones are easier, that just means they’re less hard. It doesn’t mean you should dismiss them as easy.

And even if they’re less important taken one at a time, in the aggregate they matter more.

Figure it this way: For every difficult conversation you have, you probably have 10 to 20 that aren’t hard in the usual sense. And if you’re like most of the busy managers I know, for every not-difficult conversation you have, there are probably another 10 to 20 you should have had, had you had enough time to have them.

Then figure it this way: A gram of prevention being worth easily a dekagram of cure (note to self: the metric system might be more logical than the English system, but it’s far less poetic) … where was I? That’s right, prevention, cure … handle the easier conversations and handle them well, and you won’t need as many difficult ones.

Some guidelines:

Know your goal: Are you trying to inform? Persuade? Learn? Collaboratively solve a problem? If you aren’t clear in your own mind about your goal, odds are your conversation will take too long and accomplish too little.

Know your meta-goals: When the conversation finishes, what state of mind do you want the other party to leave with? If, for example, you’re having the conversation to make you smarter about something, your meta-goal might be for the other party to feel energized because her manager values her expertise.

Schedule. Or don’t: The other person’s habits, preferences, and current time pressures, along with your goals and the complexity of the topic, all feed into your decision as to whether to IM, email, schedule a conversation, or just drop by (local) or call (remote) for a quick chat.

Choose wrong, like, for example, dropping by for a chat when the other person is crunching against a tight deadline, and what should have been an easy conversation can quickly turn difficult.

Plan: Sketch an outline for the conversation. For a group meeting this would be the agenda. Just because it’s a one-on-one that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a plan.

Be flexible: It’s just like any other plan — don’t insist on adhering to it if you find the conversation going in a productive direction you didn’t anticipate.

Location, location, location: The setting matters. You behind your desk in your office sets a very different tone from the two of you sitting at a table, which sets a very different tone from you in a chair facing the other person at his desk. Which in turn sets a different tone from meeting for coffee, which is different from meeting for lunch in the cafeteria or for beer after hours.

Phone calls have different dynamics entirely, and they’re different from web conferencing when there’s PowerPoint involved.

Have a meeting instead: Sometimes, when a lot of people need to hear the same message, you and they are better off all hearing it together. Also: If the message is a compliment, that’s no topic for a one-on-one conversation. Compliments should be delivered publicly.

Sequence matters: Sometimes you need to inform more than one person, or more than one group, about something of consequence. Talking to these individuals and groups in the wrong order can, in some situations, blow up in your face.

Especially groups, because once you’ve told the first group you should assume whatever you said will, within no more than a half hour, become public knowledge.

Do it: Yes, you’re busy. But ignore the easy conversations and you’ll miss opportunities, for example, to catch an employee’s deteriorating attitude when the issues are minor and easy to resolve. Instead, they’ll fester, until the situation is so bad that you now have to have a difficult conversation instead.

There are eight tasks of leadership — eight responsibilities leaders have to master. Of them, communication is the linchpin that holds the others together. It’s a multidimensional responsibility that encompasses listening, organizational listening, informing, persuading, and facilitation. There are lots of ways even the best leaders can get it wrong.

Don’t blow the easy ones.

Comments (2)

  • Great tips!!

  • I am going to take this opportunity to flog my daughter-in-law’s new book, “Conversations Worth Having”, which will be available starting tomorrow (5/22) on Amazon. Having read it in pre-print, I found that it has several useful ideas about choosing an approach to conversations, both those that are difficult and those that are less so. It is based on the positive methodologies of Appreciative Inquiry (the other AI).

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