Every Great Conversation

Randy Sabourin

The most important things that happen at any organization are conversations. They are the reason we innovate, collaborate, sell, lead, coach, change, succeed or fail. A salesperson who struggles to have meaningful customer conversations, a leader who is misunderstood when implementing strategy, or a manager who prefers to avoid coaching conversations are all negatively affecting their organizations. Given its significance to success, why is it that most organizations and individuals take their ability to execute a great conversation for granted? Understanding how we communicate with each other and how we influence and collaborate should be discussed, taught and – most importantly – practiced.

The fundamentals of a good conversation remain consistent across a variety of business and personal situations. Training programs in sales or customer service, negotiation, coaching and leadership all contain the same foundational elements. These are often retaught or reinvented by providers to package a complete solution. These programs require a detailed list of skills for participants to master. For example, when learning how to coach it is critical to understand many steps – or skills – such as establishing trust, setting an agenda, observing behavior, giving feedback, gaining commitment, and many more. It is important to receive feedback on these individual skills so that they can be understood and leveraged. In each program, the number of measurable skills to learn and practice can range from ten to thirty.

During an actual conversation, it is unrealistic, complicated and even a distraction to try and recall every step within each process and program we have learned. Brain-based learning research tells us that when we are engaged in a conversation – listening, understanding new ideas, and adapting our opinions – we require a much simpler model to simply recall the various skills associated with the exchange.

There are four foundational elements that can be applied to business or personal conversations, and that are simple enough to stick. They act as an effective foundation for any communication-based program.

Attention – Curiosity – Empathy – Clarity

A business conversation is not a linear process. For example, most sales or coaching conversations include an embedded questioning model. The objectives of the model are to better understand the current state of the situation, find issues or problems to resolve, determine the ramifications of those issues, and explore solutions. All of these questions are founded in curiosity – unless they are delivered as an interrogation or a transparent sales pitch. When woven into a conversation at various points with honest curiosity, the same questions become magic. The questioner needs to understand each type of question, but need only remember to be genuinely curious in the moment in order to implement the entire model.

Keeping four elements – attention, curiosity, empathy and clarity – in mind before and during a conversation will ensure a natural flow. When the conversation seems contrived or too forceful, it can be perceived as deceitful. Approaching the conversation like you’re getting to know someone at an office party or backyard BBQ is a sound guideline.

Attention is a combination of active listening and focusing on the other person in the conversation. Focused attention is perceived as very positive: it says, “You are important.” When applied to a sales conversation, paying attention helps execute the skills of determining need, finding clues for new opportunities, and adapting behavior.

Curiosity is the catalyst for finding out more about the other person’s situation in an honest, natural way. Any conversation can be fascinating when the motivation is to find out what makes the other person tick. Salespeople are often trained to ask questions by rote in order to understand the customer’s need and move to a solution. A coaching conversation can often sound like an interrogation or even a setup, using leading questions to get a coachee to admit to some issue. By contrast, when a questioner is curious it allows improvisation so that the conversation unfolds naturally and comfortably.

Curiosity is the cornerstone that allows any questioning model to flow and avoid getting stuck in one track where the conversation could end. The process of getting to know more about someone’s business, their life, or their challenges, can also be intriguing and revealing. Being asked honest, curious questions can make anyone feel important. Answering questions and talking about ourselves triggers the pleasure centers in the brain. We feel important, as if the conversation is between people who care as opposed to strangers or antagonists.

Empathy is understanding a situation from the other person’s perspective. Empathy is also the secret weapon for absorbing tension and overcoming objections. An emotionally charged situation can quickly be defused with empathy, followed by curiosity. Being empathetic helps check ego and open both parties up to a productive conversation about the objection, making it easier to gain a clearer understanding of the issue and adapt. A lack of empathy evokes feelings of not being heard or understood, and quickly shuts down the conversation.

Clarity is about being simple, direct, and concise – which can be a challenge when engaged in a complex situation or process. Avoid jargon or overly complex explanations, which can be perceived as an intentional ploy to be superior. To add clarity, check for understanding and take the time to explain processes in terms of their value.

The hidden principle driving conversational behavior: Avoid – Approach

A fundamental organizing principle of the human brain is the “minimize danger and maximize reward” principle (Gordon 2000), commonly referred to as Avoid – Approach. The Avoid – Approach response is every person’s way of tagging situations as either positive (Approach & Reward) or negative (Avoid & Threat). It is a survival instinct that drives human behavior at a subconscious level.

The Avoid – Approach response has a significant influence on perception, creativity, decision-making, and collaboration. The default mode for new situations or those associated with mistrust is Avoid. Let’s apply this to customer experience: in the Avoid mode, customers are closed to new ideas, they mistrust more easily, and they misinterpret body language. In this mode, their bodies react by increasing cortisol levels, which in turn increase stress.

The Approach mode enables people to be more open to new ideas and to reveal more about themselves. In Approach mode, they are more perceptive and will take risks. Rather than increasing cortisol, their bodies increase dopamine levels, which help with attention, learning, and happiness.

Moving to Approach mode

First contact and engagement are very important. Simple things like making eye contact (not avoiding it), a smile, and a warm greeting help a great deal. Studies reveal that mimicking body language helps move people to the Approach mode via a set of mirror neurons (Maddux). When people act and move the same way we do, we trust them more.

Past first contact, the best way to move people from Avoid to Approach is to have an authentic conversation with them. By paying attention to the other person, being truly curious, showing empathy, and being clear when communicating, the conversation has the potential to be fruitful. Use of these four simple elements comprise an authentic, human, and intuitive conversation.

By approaching each conversation with Attention, Curiosity, Empathy and Clarity, both parties will feel more at ease and open.

Randy Sabourin is the co-president of Practica Learning. He assists organizations to grow and develop individuals and teams using a combination of deliberate practice programs and business improvisation. His focus is on how individuals and teams communicate under pressure.

Sales & Marketing Management is the leading authority for executives in the sales and marketing field.

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