How to have more productive conversations

The other day, I was coaching two super-smart co-founders who need to improve their communication with each other if their company is going to thrive. One of the behaviors they wanted to develop was more productive disagreements.

“What are your criteria for a productive conversation?” I asked.

“One that’s oriented toward a goal,” said one founder, “where we’re really listening to each other.” “One where we better understand the other person’s way of thinking and can adapt our way of communicating,” said the other founder.

And then, as if someone had pushed a button, they launched into a discussion of whether a recent conversation they’d had had been productive. Back and forth they went, one saying it had been, the other that it hadn’t.

For 10 minutes, I sat and watched like it was a ping pong match.

“Well, you’re right,” I finally interrupted them. “You’re not listening to each other. I mean, you’re calm, you sound rational, you’re not attacking each other. But every sentence started with “but” and you each repeated the same thing three times, which tells me that neither of you feels heard.”

Too many of our conversations are like this, aren’t they? We spend so much time and energy trying to prove our point and justify our position — going round and round, without reaching a satisfying conclusion.

To my mind, it’s pretty simple:

Any conversation that’s focused on being right (or not being wrong) will be an unproductive conversation. (The giveaway is when all your responses start with “yeah, but…”)

Any conversation that’s focused on understanding the other person will be a productive conversation.

Here’s how to take a conversation that’s started to go off the rails and turn it around:

“Whoa, I think we’re going around in circles. Let’s take turns, 10 minutes each, explaining how we see the situation.”

Then you set the timer (10 minutes is just a suggestion, of course) and really listen. That means, when it’s their turn, they do most of the talking and you are focused solely on understanding their point of view (not what you think about what they said or how you’re going to brilliantly rebut everything when it’s your turn).

Want a few strategies?

  1. Reflect back what you heard: In your own words, restate the essence of what the other person has just said — especially when topics get emotional this is a guaranteed way to make people feel understood.
    “What I heard you say is you feel left out of big decisions in the company.”
  2. Ask for clarification when what they say is open to interpretation or difference of opinion (i.e. most everything). “What do you consider big decisions?”
  3. Notice when they repeat something, that means it’s important to them. “You’ve mentioned feeling left out a couple of times, can you tell me more about that?”

Sure, real listening requires focus, patience and self control. But if you like being productive, it’s the ultimate “hack.”