CAREER ADVANCEMENT / JAN. 20, 2015
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A Model for Better Conversations

We could all do with having better conversations, couldn’t we? The benefits are obvious: reduced conflict, better decision-making and problem-solving skills, and stronger relationships. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, a salesman or a librarian, the ability to have a productive conversation is a skill worth cultivating. Alan Lafley, CEO of Procter & Gamble and author of Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works, describes in his book a process of ‘assertive inquiry’ as a model for better conversations, i.e.: more productive dialogue. Below are three main aspects of the “assertive inquiry” process.

Advocacy 

According to Lafley, people have a “default” communication mode of advocacy for their position, their arguments, and their view of the world. He recommends being clear and explicit in your advocacy but also inviting the views and opinions of others (“inquiry”). For example, you could offer the following to a colleague: “My view of the situation is this, and for these reasons…”, but would then follow your advocacy with an invitation to them to offer their own view, for example: “What’s your view of the situation?” The advocacy plus inquiry approach avoids the ‘blunt doorstep’ method of communication which sabotages productive dialogue and does not acknowledge or seek to understand other viewpoints. Worse, without inquiry, the other person in the dialogue is likely to respond in kind: with their own advocacy. Understanding each other’s perspective is an important first step to improving the quality of dialogue, and will help both parties identify any assumptions or misconceptions that may have been previously held. The premise of advocacy with inquiry is that although you have a view, which should be asserted, you acknowledge that you could be “missing something” – a stance that will enrich the conversation.

Paraphrase

Lafley suggests paraphrasing your colleague’s position as a means of confirming your understanding of their viewpoint. For example, you could offer the following paraphrase: “My understanding of what you’ve said is that you’re in favor of this expansion but have serious reservations about the magnitude of resources required and timings. Would that be a fair representation of your perspective on things?” It’s important to echo both the ‘letter and spirit’ of your colleague’s viewpoint when paraphrasing. Meaningful conversation is also helped by silence, because this enables those engaged in the conversation to cogitate and reflect on what is being discussed.

Explain

The third aspect of assertive inquiry is to explain any gaps in your understanding. For example, questions such as, “Can you help me to understand the importance of using those particular suppliers?” or “Where do you see the added value coming from?” or “How will success be measured?” reveal that you need further information before you can fully appreciate your colleague’s position. Open questions (those that require more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response) are particularly useful because they will invariably lead to an explanation. So, ask them liberally to help you truly appreciate your colleague’s position. 

Assertive inquiry is a good framework for dialogue because it seamlessly blends assertiveness with an explicit desire for understanding. Do you have any tips for better conversations?

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