Setting the Tone from the Top

The book has already covered the rationale for sharing knowledge and suggested some strategies and tactics that all involve effective conversations, such as ‘leave one’s ego at the door’, ‘knowledge sharing sessions’ and ‘peer reviews’. The question now is, “how do directors know their conversations are having the desired impact?” What follows is a description of the six phases through which all conversations progress—knowing about these phases, and how successful leaders manage their conversations through them, will provide an insight for directors on the best way to manage their leadership conversations.

The six phases of a conversation and how they are managed productively:

“Hello Alice, I’m Bob. Nice to meet you (pause). So what do you do?” Bob asked as a conversation starter when meeting Alice at an event. I’m a banker, specialising in foreign exchange,” she replied.

“Sounds interesting—do you enjoy it?”

Alice hesitated for a moment or two—she seemed somewhat uninspired by her profession. “It’s pretty interesting, and I’ll have a good lifestyle after I’ve been there a few years,” she answered.

At this point Bob had two options: “I could continue the drudgery of the normal conversation and go on talking about her job (by which she seemed less than totally enthused), or I could reframe the conversation and try to build a deeper emotional connection. I decided on the latter.”

“Sounds like a good plan. And what do you do that you’re truly passionate about?”

Bob recounts, “At first Alice seemed a bit confused, and I wondered if she’d always considered herself enthusiastic about banking, but then she gathered herself and responded, ‘You know, I actually love the idea of starting a corporate design business one day’.”

So far in this book we’ve used the term ‘communication’ in a general sense to describe many interactions. However, ‘conversation’ becomes a far more specific form of communication. For example, you can communicate by sending an email or text, leaving a voice mail on someone’s phone, writing a paper, or even accessing data from the internet. Conversation on the other hand requires interaction between at least two people, and that’s where the challenges start.

Conversations can be funny things—we start out someplace and may end up at a totally different destination from the one we expected. For example, Bob’s conversation with Alice went somewhere that he did not expect. “How was your day?” is another conversation starter used by millions of people around the world when they meet up again at the end of the day. What sort of responses do you get when you ask this question? Have you ever been surprised by the answers?

Conversation at its simplest takes place when participants perform these tasks which progress the conversation through the process outlined in Figure 9: The six phases of a conversation.

Conversation process

This diagram seems to depict conversations as very mechanistic. Yet, studies98 have shown that’s exactly the process that occurs in every conversation we have—whether it’s chatting with a friend or in discussion with a fellow director—we’re just not consciously aware of following this six-step process.

With such knowledge, one can dramatically increase one’s conversational effectiveness. Notice here too, that we’ve used the word ‘process’ to describe what happens in a conversation—as mentioned earlier in the book, process management skills are vitally important in conversing.

Most often, we are so involved in the ‘content’, the subject of the conversation, that we’re unaware of the six phases through which the conversation is progressing.

A good way of becoming familiar with the six phases, and how a director can actively manage each phase, is to recall a conversation that you have had recently with a fellow director—the conversation may have been constructive or otherwise. The point is to see how your recent conversation followed the six phases. To do so, please answer our questions and think about your recent conversation as you read through each of the six phases.

Open a channel

To start the conversation, the speaker says something that is comprehensible to the listener. This may seem basic but is essential. The situation must also seem comfortable, or at least non-threatening. For example, if the speaker says something in a language you don’t understand or you can’t hear what was said because of other noise, then a conversation does not start. In your recent conversation:

Commit to engage

The listener must participate if only by continuing to listen. He/she is only likely to continue if they see value in the conversation.

  • What value did you see in continuing the conversation, that is, why did you continue?
  • What value do you think the other director saw in the conversation?
  • Why did the conversation end? Was it too soon, too long or about right?

Construct meaning

At this point the people are able to understand one another through previous conversations, shared knowledge, common language or social norms.

  • What did the two of you share or have in common? How did you discover this shared meaning?
  • Were there specific questions either you or your conversation partner asked that facilitated a shared understanding?

Converge on agreement

In an effective conversation, people share some understanding of the topic even if minimal, or a desire to understand it if the conversation is to continue (although they may totally disagree on one another’s reasons, logic, philosophy and so on). Because of this shared understanding they will start to move toward an agreement, or at least an ‘agreement to disagree’.

  • What did the two of you agree on, or perhaps ‘agree to disagree’ on?

Evolve and build understanding

Either or both people are different after the conversation—this may be in their actions, beliefs or even a strengthening of their initial thoughts and ideas.

  • What did the conversation identify, confirm or change for you?
  • How did you feel following the conversation? Was this a different feeling from the one you had before?

Act or transact

Either or both people do something as a result of the conversation—this may range from undertaking some action, telling someone else, or continuing to think (consciously) about the topic.

  • What have you done since the conversation (that was related)?
  • Who have you told about the conversation? Why?

During a challenging conversation, it will be nigh on impossible to remember all six tasks required to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. After all, you will be totally immersed in the content, and rightly so. Remembering to complete these tasks will therefore be particularly challenging when your conversation is emotionally charged. So it will be useful to have some clear signposts to help manage the process and progress to a satisfactory destination. As a starting point, our diagram should be a useful map to follow. We encourage directors to become familiar with it and observe how conversations with people around you—directors, the chair, the CEO, other colleagues—always progress through these six phases.

Here we’ve once again used the words ‘content’ and ‘process’. In conversations these are important concepts to understand and manage. The content is what the discussion is all about—the problems, issues, challenges. People in all difficult or challenging conversations become heavily engrossed in the content. The process on the other hand is how the conversation is managed—the questions, summaries, timing, format, etc. When difficult conversations end in an impasse, devolve into argument or just fail to reach any conclusions, it’s almost always because the people are so focussed on the content and no-one is managing the process. It’s by being a good process manager that directors can dramatically improve the way they manage difficult conversations. We will cover the six phases of a conversation in more detail in Part 4 where it will be used to plan and manage those challenging conversations that all directors have.

The bottom line…

Leading through conversation means managing conversations, particularly difficult ones, through the six phases:
  • Open a channel so that all directors and/or senior executive feel comfortable;
  • Commit to engage by listening to the concerns, issues, challenges of others;
  • Construct meaning by looking for common ground and shared understandings;
  • Converge on agreement by indicating your understanding of the issues;
  • Evolve and build understanding by identifying what the conversation changed or confirmed; and
  • Act or transact by deciding on what action to take (or not) depending on the outcomes.