The Anatomy of a Great Conversation

The Anatomy of a Great Conversation

Most people have an irresistible tendency to get into a problem-solving mode within the first 60 seconds of a conversation. We move swiftly from point A to B. Goal completion (and often, in the shortest time too) is the ultimate objective. By doing so, we tend to miss out on a precious bunch of cues, clues, context, crazy ideas – that could lead to an unexpectedly richer set of solutions and outcomes.

Here’s my little three-point philosophy on how to take every conversation from good to great, informed by my own practice and precious materials from an earlier coaching certification program I attended.  If I were to choose the most important insights I have gained on coaching, it would be down to these three points:

1.  All Great Conversations Share a Common Anatomy or Shape

Put two funnels back-to-back, one on top of the other, and presto! We get the shape of an optimised conversation. I draw this simple visual on the top of my notepad whenever I coach, as a constant reminder to myself that a great conversation basically has two halves – (1) Opening wide to explore, and (2) Narrowing down to action. This sounds a lot simpler than it really is. To play both halves well, a coach must assume two very different mindsets and become two different persons with contrasting agendas and characters. Read on.

Great Conversation

2.  First-Half: Get Wondrously Lost

Let’s take a one-hour coaching conversation for example. The first 30 minutes is spent opening the conversation to explore (signalled by the opening funnel). My task in the first-half is to absolutely forget that I should drive the conversation towards an outcome at all. This is the key, because it frees a coach of obligatory pressures to move things to a tangible finish, and as a result, he actually listens far more generously and enjoys his coaching. My aim is to get wondrously lost in my client’s rhetoric, and to always follow him where he wants to take me, staying ever open and curious. Every time he says something that sounds important or interesting, I merely probe with a simple “Tell me more.” Before long, I have A LOT to work with. All the root causes, potential solutions, obstacles, and more potently – personal, psychological barriers, and motivational factors (what drives/drains him) – start surfacing.

3.  Second-Half: Go for the Kill

Half-time. We now enter the next 30 minutes, and at about this point, a good coach almost transforms into a different person, and now drives the conversation, with singular focus and intent, towards a concrete, actionable finish (signalled by the closing funnel). Someone once said, “Coaching that doesn’t end with firm outcomes is just a nice conversation.” Having said this, don’t jump straight to actions. Brainstorm options. My favourite question here is – “Give me five options.” Why five? The first three responses that most people give tend to be conventional ones. They almost always pause before getting number four out, and a longer pause usually precedes number five. Options number four and five are often out-of-the-box ideas, or actions they have been resisting to take, and these are often the ones that make a game-changing difference to the outcome when applied.

Here’s a quick example of how this simple brainstorming approach led to a breakthrough for a recent client. I was coaching T who was very much a task-oriented manager. Her options one to three were predictably process-related ideas, and after a pregnant pause, options four and five came out and these were much more personal, people-related suggestions, including bringing the few colleagues who were involved in a conflict situation out for an informal lunch. My client admitted that doing these kinds of things don’t come naturally to her, but she ended up doing it and discovered something that day – That “the right thing to do” doesn’t always need to feel natural before we do it.

My closing thought – Most things at work and in life get done through conversations. By learning to coach, you can help yourself, and the many others around you, optimise your conversations and get so much more out of them.

Wan ChungWan Chung LAI (ACC) is Regional Learning and Development Director of a British MNC based in Singapore.  He holds a first-class honours degree in Linguistics from Sydney and an MS in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from the City University of New York (beta gamma sigma).  Wan Chung has worked in the public, private and non-profit sectors, and actively coaches leaders across Asia.  To him, coaching is ultimately about creating a ‘sense of safety.’ When people feel safe, they take risks, say ‘yes’ to who they are, breathe and do their greatest work. Visit his Facebook Page and find him on LinkedIn.