The art of skilful conversation

WHEN last did you have a truly stimulating and fruitful conversation that generated thought and/or inspired action? How often do you really engage with your colleagues and feel that you have learned or conveyed something new and useful?

The truth is, most conversations just drift along. Often, the same people say the same old things with little impact on anyone or anything. In business, this can be hugely wasteful. And, given that managers spend 30% – 60% of their eight-hour days in meetings – essentially having managed conversations – the potential for waste is enormous.

As a manager, you require meaningful communication rather than babble. The premise is that quality conversations generate understanding, creativity and practical thinking that lead to valuable action.

In fact, in this, the knowledge age, business success increasingly hinges on engaging colleagues, customers and associates in conversations that question reality, incite learning, tackle tough challenges, tap aspirations and enrich relationships. The challenge then, is for managers to learn how to successfully manage dialogue for effective understanding and dynamic results.

“Unfortunately, few companies appreciate just how much time, effort and resources are wasted during badly managed meetings and conversations,” says Richard Mulvey, CEO of Durban-based management training company Perception Business Skills. “Few people receive any training on how to conduct productive meetings. Most chairpersons simply follow examples according to their experience, and in many cases these are poor examples.”

Senior lecturer at the Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Witwatersrand, Conrad Viedge says that, in addition to being wasteful, poorly managed meetings can result in misunderstanding and inappropriate action.

“Where the objective of a meeting is to bring about a common understanding, rather than deal with day-to-day management issues in regular meetings, a special process is needed,” he comments.

To this end, the business school uses a process called ‘skilful conversations’ ¬– which is partly based on the theories of Professor Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.

A module on skilful conversations is often included as part of executive education programmes to illustrate how management teams should come to a deep understanding of the key issues in the organisation. These issues include such fundamental questions as:

• What is our recipe for making money?
• Who are our targeted customers?
• How should we go about retaining key talent?

The skilful conversation process serves two purposes – one to gain consensus and a deep understanding of some fundamentals of the business, and the other, to illustrate what typically goes wrong in ordinary meetings.

“Skilful conversation is one in which people interact freely, exchange ideas, listen and respond appropriately and thereby generate good thinking,” says Viedge. “Ideally, this dialogue would include insightful questioning and also regular summaries to ensure that everyone agrees that a common understanding has been reached. Where successfully managed, conversation should benefit from every member’s knowledge, experience and creativity. The value to the individual members of the group is a better understanding of the fundamentals of the business, which then ensures that better decisions are made.”

Conversations, he asserts, are vehicles for stimulating effective thinking. People not only think when they respond to other people’s statements and management accounting information, they are also stimulated to think when they are required to formulate their own opinions when they contribute to the discussion.

It stands to reason therefore, that in meetings of this type, one should endeavour to create an environment that stimulates thinking by both provoking participants with reliable and interesting data, and by encouraging active participation and response.

“To make things simple and easy to follow, our guidelines for skilful conversations have been reduced to just three. These are: to focus on the topic, ask questions to check your understanding, and summarise regularly to check the common understanding of the group,” explains Viedge.

“To shepherd the process, one member of the group is appointed as the ‘keeper of the flame’. All this person has to do is to gently bring the group back on track in terms of the three guiding principles.”

Even with these three simple guidelines, he says, experience showed that groups did not automatically follow the guidelines, and therefore when the process is run at the business school two observers are used to give feedback to the group on how they are performing in terms of running a successful skilful conversation.

“The feedback from the observers typically works exceptionally well, and within a short space of time the groups are benefiting from following the guidelines.”

How to arrange a skilful conversation

• Limit the number of participants to no more than five.
• Remember the objective is to create ‘deep understanding’.
• Encourage everyone to participate as equals.
• Appoint a ‘keeper of the flame’ to keep the conversation focused on the topic, but not to act as a gatekeeper or chairperson.
• Limit contributions to one idea at a time.
• Ask people to explain the assumptions that underpin what they say.
• Try and get to the meaning behind the words.
• Listen actively to all contributions.
• Try and build on the previous contribution.
• Summarise regularly and check for understanding.

(First published in Business Day’s Management Review supplement.)

About Administrator

Author and freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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