If you want to maximize your impact at work, you must put your best voice forward. Why? Because even if you have excellent credentials and technical skills, you add your greatest value by interacting well with other people.
We live in an interdependent world. Trouble is, a lot of people in this age of texting and email haven’t mastered the art of good conversation. I’m not referring to the ability to chat somebody up about the weather or last weekend’s ballgame. A lot of people can do that. I’m referring to truly meaningful interaction between people.
True dialogue is not pie-in-the-sky, let’s all-hold-hands-and-sing stuff. Neither is it a touch-feely, warm-and-fuzzy, soft-headed approach to thinking and interacting. Open and honest dialogue is a key ingredient of high performance and strong results.
To learn more about the what, why, and how of effective conversations, I interviewed John Stoker. He’s author of the book Overcoming Fake Talk: How to Hold REAL Conversations That Create Respect, Build Relationships, and Get Results.
A lot of people think they’re pretty good at talking, yet they don’t get the results they want. What’s the most common cause of this disconnect?
Many people engage in what I call fake talk. That can include explanations that are vague or unclear, representations that are intentionally misleading, or even a conscious or unconscious withholding of all or part of a person’s meaning. Unfortunately, the person often doesn’t find out that they have been engaging in fake talk until it becomes clear that they are getting results they don’t want or didn’t expect.
Why does this disconnect occur?
Because people think the words they use are the communication. In reality, the actual words we use comprise only a small percentage of the meaning we communicate. Much more information is communicated by tone, non-verbal behaviors, individual styles, the context of the conversation, and the nature of the relationships.
What’s an example?
Someone recently told me that when her director stands and speaks to the team for 30 minutes, afterwards no one in the room can explain what the director meant or what he wanted from the team. Consequently, the director’s message is subject to a whole spectrum of interpretations. Adding to the disconnect, of course, is the fact that none of his employees is willing to ask for clarification for fear of appearing stupid or incompetent, or of causing offense. As you can see, there’s little likelihood that this director will get what he really wants.
What are some of the keys to holding a conversation that produces the results you want while maintaining mutual respect?
Everyone wants respect. What they often fail to consider is the impact that respect and the quality of the relationship have on results. I recently received an email from a man who had read my book, Overcoming Fake Talk. He had a great story to tell: Originally he was skeptical about my claim that respect and relationship have a huge impact on results. Then he had an eye-opening experience at a car dealership where he had gone to get his windshield replaced. An unfortunate misunderstanding resulted in an altercation with the service manager, and this customer stormed out of the dealership. Sitting in his vehicle, he remembered what I had written about respect, relationship, and results, and decided to test it out. He went back to the manager and apologized. By the end of the interaction, not only had his windshield been repaired with complementary labor, but had also made a connection with a fellow customer in the waiting room—who coincidentally turned out to be someone he had been trying to make a business connection with for over six months. Because he took action to improve the respect and the relationship in this encounter, his results improved exponentially.
Many people tend to judge others by their behavior while they want others to judge them by their intentions. How can effective conversation help build and maintain trust?
First, have you ever met a person that you immediately knew you could trust the first time you saw them? There was just “something” about them or something they exuded that made you feel safe to some degree. You might ask yourself whether you could be or become that kind of person—are you trustworthy? Do you speak and act as if you genuinely have people’s best interest at heart? Or might people accurately sense that you have another agenda?
Second, the underlying assumption behind this question is that people tend to judge and think negatively about others. This can be addressed by one of the skills outlined in my book: the ability to “Recognize and Suspend” one’s own thinking. When I suspend my thinking, I consciously set aside my preconceived judgments, assessments, and opinions about another person and their behavior in order to understand what they are trying to express. I operate from the assumption that the person is rational and has something of value to contribute (even if I have to dig for it). This means that I deliberately ask questions and listen to what the person is saying.
The bottom line is that there is a genuine attitude of respect in the interaction, which is the necessary basis for establishing and developing trust. Think of trust as an oak tree. You have to plant the acorn, then nurture the seedling until the tree develops a sturdy trunk. Trust is developed over time. Respect is the seed you have to plant.
Because talking is one of the most visible things a leader does, what advice do you offer for making the most of their conversations?
Occasionally leaders are required to hold important and/or difficult conversations. But an effective leader holds seemingly “inconsequential” conversations at any given time of any given day.
When it comes to important or difficult conversations, any leader who fails to prepare really does prepare to fail. Overcoming Fake Talk introduces skills for holding any conversation and a process for using those skills. They can all be distilled into three points that should become second nature to leaders:
1. Become aware of your assumptions. Most of us are unaware our assumptions about other people and the situations in which we encounter them. Take the time to clarify your assumptions about people and their performance. This will help you determine whether your thinking is even accurate—and it will become more accurate if you can identify evidence or specific facts that support your assumptions.
For example, let’s assume that an employee consistently turns in reports late. You may assume that this person is lazy, an assumption that would naturally color your interactions with them. However, if you ask yourself whether you have data that absolutely supports the “lazy” label, you might realize that you do not. If you look objectively, you may find that the person is always waiting for missing or late information, which in turn affects their production of the report. Or perhaps you have an internal IT problem that gets in the way of delivering the report. The bottom line is that if you do not take time to explore the evidence you have, your thinking may be wildly inaccurate and sabotage the entire working relationship.
2. Keep your end goal in mind. Ask yourself, “What is the purpose for holding this conversation?” I often say that effective leaders think about their own thoughts. If you don’t know what you want, then it doesn’t matter much what you say, because you are unlikely to get any effective results. You need to be very specific and clear about your intent for holding the conversation.
3. Once you have clarified your assumptions and identified your intent, then you’re ready to hold the conversation.
I recommend a four-step process for holding any difficult conversation: Initiate, Discover, Connect, and Build. These four steps allow you to describe the current situation, gain understanding, connect with the individual’s perspective, and build accountability in creating the outcome you desire.
What can leaders do to help make the principles and practices you advocate become the “default” or automatic behaviors in their organizations?
First you have to learn and internalize the skills and processes for holding REAL conversations. Second, you need to teach those same skills and processes to members of your team. Finally, you need to work together to create a culture where you deliberately demonstrate and practice the skills that lead to increased candor, collaboration, and contribution in achieving results.
Practice, practice, practice to make it permanent.
This interview by Dr. Duncan was originally published by Forbes where he is a regular contributor.
Follow on Twitter @DoctorDuncan