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Having effective conversations

Our conversations affect everything we think, say, and do.

How many times do we feel bad about how a conversation went with our client, our boss, or our team member? How often do we blame the other person when a conversation goes haywire?

Do we notice what drives us in a conversation, for we cannot change what we do not notice?

Two meeting scenarios

I am a lawyer and meeting a client for the first time to discuss a contract issue. As an expert I consider I know the answer. I enter the meeting room, shake hands, and sit at the head of the table. I outline the issues and what I see as the solution.

I ask if they have any questions. Their expression barely shifts. There are no questions. I tell them I will confirm my solution in a letter, stand up, shake hands, and ask my PA to walk them to reception.

I am a law firm partner. I have just had an argument with my teenager, slamming down the phone. I am late for a meeting with a client, overlooking a scheduled meeting with a team member who is floundering on an issue. I have deferred this meeting several times.

I give them five minutes. Their questions show a lack of experience. My answers are short. I cut them off after five minutes and tell them to provide a memorandum later that day. They do. I take one look at it and sigh, thinking they are hard work.

When I get home that evening, I am cranky and tell my spouse of these two meetings. She asks: how could you have been a better host for each meeting?

I paused. It was one of those lightbulb moments. Yes, that is what I am when I am in a meeting in my office with my client and team members. There is no rocket science here.

It is just being a great host, a metaphor that conjures up all sorts of occasions. And we have all experienced being a host and a guest, from a children’s or adults’ party to a team get-together.

Being a great host

I leave a function and say to the host, ‘What a great host you are?’

What did they do to instigate this feeling? They welcomed me at the door; introduced me; checked in to see if I was OK; seated us at a large round dining table, where each of us could engage with each other person, with no one sitting in the ‘power corner’; ensured the dinner was served at a pace that meant after dinner drinks/coffee could be served at around 9.30, allowing space for people to feel comfortable to say goodnight.

I felt acknowledged, valued, and listened to. And not once did I observe the host use a mobile phone. At the beginning of the meal, they jokingly gave thanks for mobile phones, though not as cutlery at the dinner table.

Is there any difference when I host a meeting in my workplace? What if I ask:

  • How do I make the meeting space welcoming?
  • Am I in the right mood for the meeting?
  • Do I have enough time to have an effective meeting?
  • Have I switched off my mobile phone?
  • If I am expecting a call, do I ask the others if they mind if I keep my mobile phone on?
  • How do I ensure a person who may not know anyone feels welcome?
  • Where do I place myself? In my desk chair, looking across the desk at my invitee? At the head of a rectangular table? Or do I use a round table, with no position of power?
  • How do I ensure each person feels listened to?
  • Do I check in to see how the meeting is going, and when finished, how it went?
  • How do I know when it is ok to end the meeting?

An exercise:

With these questions in mind, what would you say to me about the way I conducted the meetings in the above two scenarios?

Listening and speaking


Drawing by Steve Bachmayer

Conversations are a balance between listening and speaking. A good rule of thumb is to remember the words attributed to Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher:

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

Even when we are there to impart our expertise, knowledge and experience to a client or team member, are we listening to their expertise, knowledge and experience, and whether they understand what we have spoken about?

When me make a request of a client or team member, are we making a clear request (why, how, what, and when) and have they understood it; and do we check in to see how they are going performing the request?

Fresh out of a United States law school, I entered a New York law firm full of excitement, pride, and trepidation. Late on a Friday afternoon, shortly after I arrived, a partner whom I was told was revered, requested me to do a memorandum on an issue.

I assumed he wanted an answer the following Monday and spent the whole weekend on it. I proudly delivered 20 pages of my brilliance to him on Monday morning. He flipped. He had wanted a one or two-page draft for discussion on another aspect of the issue.

He never asked me to do anything for him again. I was shattered. My emotions swirled, evoking, I am not good enough. I did not have the experience or courage to ask clarifying questions, overwhelmed by perceived pressures of time (his time), a power imbalance, and not wanting to appear stupid.

What if the partner took on a hosting role, creating a culture where I, as an inexperienced lawyer, would have felt comfortable in clarifying the request, with him leading me through the why, how, what, and when of the request, that is, creating a mentoring/coaching culture?

From the partner’s point of view, this makes economic sense, reducing what in Ontological Coaching we call conversational waste, and ensuring an employee feels acknowledged, valued, and listened to.

Conversational tips

I offer some questions to stimulate your thinking in having effective conversations, where each person feels acknowledged, valued, and listened to.

What about the other person?

  • Am I being too quick to form a view about the other person?
  • Am I being curious about the other person and their ideas?

Being the expert

  • Am I mansplaining?
  • Am I reloading, thinking of my answer while the other speaks?
  • Am I being too quick to espouse my knowledge?

The process

  • When I do offer my knowledge, am I offering it as one of several possibilities, not as the truth, letting them mull it over for their circumstances?
  • Am I open with my thoughts?
  • Am I allowing myself to be vulnerable?
  • Am I checking in to see how the conversation is going, for example, asking ‘Have I covered your concerns?’
  • After the conversation, asking ‘What did I learn from the conversation?’
  • Especially when I feel discomfort after a conversation, and I have settled down and had time to reflect, do I check in to see how the conversation went for them, or even ask ‘How may I have handled the conversation better?’

An exercise:

Think of a recent conversation in your family, workplace or elsewhere that did not go well. Are any of these questions helpful to understand how it may have gone better?

When we have effective conversations, whether one-on-one or in meetings, we can find the extraordinary in the ordinary. When a person feels acknowledged, valued, and listened to, they have space for those WOW moments of learning.

And when we as lawyers see a WOW moment in our client, or in our team members, we experience joy. Instead of going home cranky as I did after the above two meeting scenarios, I go home on a high, knowing that I have done the WE of my role; and most importantly, I arrive home in a positive mood, able to engage in the WE of my partner and parenting roles.

Bill Ash practised as a corporate lawyer and executive for more than 30 years, and recently as a coach, after gaining post-graduate degrees in counselling and coaching. He has recently published a book titled Redesigning Conversations: A Guide to Communicating Effectively in the Family, Workplace, and Society.

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2 Responses

  1. I read a book years ago on charismatic conversations which gave me similar insights. The key message from that book was that whatever the listener takes away from the conversation is your responsibility if you are the speaker. Made me much more aware of what I say and how I say things.

    1. Thanks for sharing this provocation Jeanette, prompting us to notice our speaking. I will take it on board.

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