When did you last feel like you spent your whole work day in meetings and conversations — that you were busy all day, but that you didn’t feel like you made any headway, that you were weren’t productive?

Yesterday? Most days??

The issue could be the quality of your conversations.

Understand that conversation is an art and a skill, and that it takes practice.

Because conversations are such a normal and prolific part of our day we operate under the misconception that we are good at them.

In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. If that is the case, then we should all be Masters of Conversation, or even hold PhDs, for those of us who’ve been on this earth a little longer, or are just more prolific talkers.

The thing is that we are not focused on practicing the Art of Conversation, instead we are mindlessly engaging in it while focusing on content, but it’s not the content that matters, it’s the quality of the thinking around that content that moves you forward.

Don’t underestimate the negative impact a poorly facilitated conversation can have

Recent discoveries in social cognitive neuroscience have uncovered just how quickly and significantly our brains can dive into ‘threat’ mode — the fight and flight response — and consequently shut down our cognitive capacity for reasoning and empathy. This, of course, explains why, when you are angry or frustrated, you will tend to generalise and see things with a ‘glass half empty’ filter and care less about what others think, or how they feel.

The human brain is five times more susceptible to negative comments or insinuations, and if information is not clearly signposted, your brain will be five times more likely to interpret what it sees or hears negatively.

Conversations that create a negative brain response impede the capacity of those affected to think creatively or to take risks.

Three things you can do starting today

I believe that conversation is an art, a science and a skill that when mastered can literally be the most powerful tool in your leader’s toolkit.

To start having conversations that count, make sure you get off to a good start with understanding these three things:


  1. Find out what everybody WANTs from the conversation or meeting

    You would be surprised (or possibly not) how often people enter into a conversation with very different WANTs that are not discovered until several conversations later.

    Before you begin, take the time to be clear and specific on what each person involved in the conversation WANTs from it. We are all ‘wired’ very differently and we cannot ever predict with certainty what others are thinking. It is best to get this on the table sooner than later, and while you should seek this information from others first, make sure that your needs are also going to be met in the conversation.

  2. Find out WHY they want it

    It’s amazing how this little extra piece of information can influence the energy and emotion in a conversation. Understanding the importance of that need, or how it relates to a bigger issue or goal can help the conversation to take a more useful direction.

  3. Make a plan for WHAT you will do to ensure all the WANTs are met

    This critical step is the one most often missed. This could include deciding how much time will be spent on various issues, or which issues will need to be pushed to another time. It could include deciding on a decision-making process, for example, let’s give everyone the chance to put their case forward, then we will take a vote. Or it could be that that what each party wants is so different that the conversation needs to focus on creating a new shared outcome that is achievable.

Make a small change today

These things sounds simple, but in our daily rush, we simply fail to take the time to do them, yet the impact can literally save hours, days and weeks of subsequent unnecessary conversation or action. Take some extra time today to make your conversations count.