How to improve the quality of conversations with colleagues

What if there were one tip to improve the quality of conversations with your colleagues? The geeky developer. The brash marketer. The impatient salesman or saleswoman.  What if there were one magic mantra to not just improve, but transform your conversations with them? What is that worth to you?

Try this: Next time you speak with a colleague, go in with only one intent. To convert her into your spokesperson. Give it a try.

nixon at mic

Kara comes huffing and puffing up the stairways. A scientist with a storm of innovative ideas on his brain and the passion to drive some of them to outcomes, he frequently has run-in’s with peers in business and others who don’t “get it!” It looks like that has happened again this morning.

“Never have scientists, sales and engineering in one meeting,” he blurts. “There are too many divergent views on the table and it is just impossible to make any progress.”

“What seems to be the matter?” I enquire.

He narrates a story with a familiar ring. I can almost see people I know from research, engineering and sales arguing over the details of the technical approach, process and people. In meetings like these , Kara’s lips start to move soundlessly, articulating words even before someone has finished speaking.

“What am I to do?” he asks.

“Go have a coffee. Come back and we’ll speak.”

Kara shuffles away, in the peculiar manner of one with great bulk. In the meanwhile, I ponder what to tell him when he gets back

I could have given him any number of tips. I could have asked him to ..

  • Go in prepared
  • Help others prepare
  • Share presentation material in advance so participants have had a chance to review ahead of the meeting
  • Ask more questions, give less answers
  • Resist the impulse to give answers before you have heard the question
  • Let people complete their sentences
  • Paraphrase the question
  • Use a structured approach to meetings
  • List pros and cons with fixes

None of these shall help him. These are tactical maneuvers that work when there is a foundation of trust to build on. Otherwise, these are just tired clichés.

These cross-functional meetings tend towards acrimony. They seldom produce universal “buy in” as some expect. The value of these meetings perhaps is to temper excitement, like soup tempers appetite before a meal.

From the vantage point in sales, it is not at all clear whether the product concept shall stand the test of the market. After all, the salespeople are betting their incentives on gaining market-share. Engineering is wondering what they shall sacrifice so they can focus on this instead. After all, every dollar is being squeezed out of their budget. And the scientists are perplexed that their innovative  ideas are just not generating the excitement they had hoped to see. After all, they want to see concepts become products in the hands of excited customers.

Kara has returned from his coffee.

“Kara, what do you expect to get out of these meetings?” I ask.

“To get everybody on the same page, of course!”

“Well, what I am about to suggest may sound strange. I am going to ask you to stop going to these meetings hoping to drive alignment. I want you to drive at a different goal, okay?”

“And what is that goal?”

“Convert at least some of the people at the table into your spokespersons. Can you do that?”

“I think I can do that. I shall need to connect with people outside of these meetings. Build a relationship. Find out what they are interested in.”

“Exactly. And ..?”

“And be their spokesperson as well, when I can.”

“There you go! You’re all set. Let me know how that goes.”

I cannot say that Kara’s “win-rate” has gone up substantially since I gave him that advice. What I can tell you though, is that he has become a lot more comfortable in the rough-and-tumble of those meetings – and, it would seem, the rough-and-tumble of life. The number of people who know him in an interested way has increased in direct proportion to the number of people that he knows and cares about. People frequently consult Kara as a subject-matter expert. And some people have started to consider his ideas as well-placed bets.

The quality of your conversation with colleagues matters. Have you inadvertently persuaded yourself to view life as a zero-sum game? Don’t be surprised then to find yourself winning battles and losing the war. Great Generals know the value of building alliances. To best way to vanquish an adversary is never to give him the chance to become one. Make him a ally instead.


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