How to mend the broken conversation

We mostly don't go out to mess up a conversation but we do often overlook the basics and therefore increase the chances that things will go wrong.

August 2, 2017

Tom and Jerry are talking about a project that is falling behind. Jerry is due to present to the Board in the morning and Tom is supposed to be giving her an update of where things are and why they are behind:

Tom: Look Jerry, they can see in the spreadsheet which bits are falling behind and why - it's not us it's the people providing server space and they said they would be back in play by Tuesday. You have nothing to worry about.

Jerry: Yes but the Board won't get that. You know what they're like. They say we should have spoken up sooner to them and to the supplier.

Tom: Relax, honestly it'll be fine. And besides I think David is on holiday at the moment and he's the one who usually kicks off about Gant charts!

Jerry: Easy for you to say...

We could say that Tom is simply trying to reassure Jerry here by playing down her worries. Jerry would say that Tom wasn't helping by just trying to cheer her up. 

What isn't clear is whether Tom can't be bothered to help Jerry, whether he doesn't want to address a tricky problem or whether he genuinely believes that there really  is nothing to worry about. 


In fact, it doesn't actually matter whether Tom doesn't agree that Jerry's worries are well founded, doesn't have an answer to the issue or doesn't want to find the time to help. What is making the conversation go sour is the fact that he is getting in the way of Jerry trying to find a solution within the conversation.


We often underrate the power of conversations to solve problems, not just between people but around the organisation. We tend to think of the conversation as a place where information simply gets exchanged whereas in reality they have a far greater potential. In the course of an exchange I can provide at least three things for you:

  1. A space to talk
  2. A space to think
  3. A space to experiment and to prepare for action


In order to help you to talk through your thought or problem I have to listen. To give you the space to think I have to stay out of the way by withholding reassurance (!) and advice. To give you the opportunity to experiment (for example with a different way of looking at things) I need to have done the previous two things and then actively encourage you to try the new thing out on me. Here, in a compressed form, is how it might sound...

  1. You sound worried, Jerry, because you don't think the 'It's not us' line will wash with the Board...
  2. Who, in your experience, is most likely to get on our case about this?...
  3. Who, in your experience, is most likely to get on our case about this?...

Conversations are rarely just a place to swap facts. They are actually where we team up to sort out problems with things, people and our own feelings - everything that is at the core of running our businesses as well as our lives. 

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