If you’re like me, chances are you walked into many high-stakes conversations without even realizing what was at stake, and without having either a goal or a game plan on how to achieve that goal.
And then, you walked out without understanding what the heck just happened and why everything turned out so wrong.
Having good conversations is a skill. You need to keep track of all of your interlocutors’ signals including values, beliefs, arguments, body language, logical fallacies, and so on, while keeping track of your own presence and communication.
So if on top of that you realize mid-flight that you didn’t plan exactly what preferred outcome you wanted from the interaction, then it’s game over.
Entering a conversation with a goal can be the deal-breaker that will make the conversation a success for both parties, or a drag and the beginning of a conflict.
Most shortcomings can be avoided by preparing and practicing the art of conversation, and by taking care of the most important step of all.
The most important step: enter every conversation with a goal
The most important to having great conversations that lead to the results you want is to make sure you enter every conversation with a goal in mind.
Ask yourself before the conversation what best possible outcome you want out of it, both for your yourself and the other party, and then create a plan to get you closer to that outcome.
I know it sounds obvious, and it still baffles me that so few people do it. And it doesn’t get better with just more years of experience on the job either: I’m seeing too many people who have been in the workforce for a decade or more still making the mistake of entering conversations totally unprepared.
If you want to get better at it, you have to be intentional, put yourself into situations where you’re going to try things out, make mistakes, and then do debriefs with yourself of what went well and what still has to be improved. Without this type of practice, no matter how many books or articles you’ll read on the topic, you won’t get better at it.
In this article, I’m sharing some of the most common healthy and unhealthy conversation goals, and I’m going into the details for each of them to help you recognize them in real-life conversations.
I hope this will also help you by increasing your awareness of it, and even why not go one step further by making you think about planning ahead of your conversations, so that you can have more of the healthy exchanges and less of the unhealthy ones.
Finally, at the end of the article I’ll open up to some of the limitations that approaching every conversation with a goal can have, and I’ll give pointers on resources you can look up to dig further into this topic.
Healthy conversation goals:
- Finding the truth
- Building and strengthening relationships
- Reaching a mutual understanding
- Reaching a commitment
- Negotiating, or reaching a consensus or agreement
- Transmitting information and letting others know
- Producing results and finding solutions
- Aligning on roles, duties, and expectations
- Learning from each other
- Intervening and influencing
Unhealthy conversation goals:
- Being right or winning
- Looking good or saving face
- Coercing or intimidating
- Punishing or blaming
- Avoiding conflict and keeping the peace
Healthy conversation goals
Finding the truth
Collaborating to figure out what is true and what is not, and correcting each other’s mistaken ideas, beliefs, or facts, and clearing out previous misunderstandings or miscommunications.
Building and strengthening relationships
Any type of interaction in which parties are spending time together and sharing with the goal of getting to know one another better, on things such as background and past experiences, core values and core beliefs, past and current struggles, hobbies and interests, and so on.
The goal of such interactions is to build rapport, which eventually leads to building trust, and using that trust as a platform for having interactions in which people can freely speak their minds without having to fear being mocked or retaliated against, leading to more productive outcomes.
Reaching a mutual understanding
Hear and understand the other party’s position, and have the other party hear and under yours.
A good technique for that is to do active listening, using Carl Rogers’s technique, which goes as follows: “Each person can speak for himself only after he has first restated the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately, and to that speaker’s satisfaction.”
Reaching a commitment
Having someone agree to do something, often by explaining why there is value in doing it, both for the thing itself and the parties involved. Often the commitment is sealed by a legal contract, a verbal commitment, or simply an email with notes of what was agreed. For close relationships, trust is often enough.
Sometimes, we can get others to commit to doing something while they don’t agree with it, the famous disagree and commit.
Negotiating, or reaching a consensus or agreement
Any type of exchange in which parties express what is important to them, what they’re willing to concede for it.
All negotiations fall into that category, although other conversation goals might also be needed for successful negotiations (building trust and relationships, finding the truth on what matters for all parties, reaching an agreement, etc.)
Transmitting information and letting others know
Typically, any conversation you have where you need to let other parties know about some information. This also includes almost all forms of public speaking where most of the communication is unidirectional.
Producing results and finding solutions
Having an interaction with the goal of coming out with an outcome, or solving a particular problem at hand. This can be in the form of:
- Producing work such as a document, a picture, a physical item, a piece of software, and so on.
- Producing ideas in the form of potential future work, potential risks
- Producing a definition of the problem scope
- Producing a plan of action
Aligning on roles, duties, and expectations
Two or more parties would discuss what their respective roles are in the bigger picture of their interactions, who is accountable for what, by which date, and by which quality standard. And also, what mutual expectations they have for one another.
These are typically the conversations you’d have when joining a new organization, or when someone new is joining your organization. The discussions concern the boundaries between everyone’s jobs and scopes, who owns what, and how things work.
Learning from each other
Finding out how others came to their conclusions.
This also requires asking many follow-up questions to clarify and dig deeper into a person’s approach to get to those conclusions, what sources of information they used, what bias they might have based on who they are or where they come from, etc.
Intervening and influencing
Intervening is about trying to change someone’s mind. This implies trying to change what they believe, or the method through which they formed those beliefs.
Very rarely can someone’s core values be changed, and trying to intervene on values often leads to the person defending those values even more.
Unhealthy conversation goals
Being right or winning
Speaking with the intention of being correct and getting out of the interaction having won over the other person’s points or ideas.
Many people I’ve run into, especially in engineering, fall into that category, and I’ve been there myself in the past. It’s tempting to want to be right, because it flatters our ego, and it keeps us from having to deal with our own insecurities.
Unfortunately, when done too many times with someone, it ends up bruising the relationship to the point where it becomes a non-recoverable conflict.
Looking good or saving face
This includes wanting to impress or wanted to hide facts or information from the other parties in such a way that this other party would leave the conversation with a higher opinion of us than they would otherwise.
Coercing or intimidating
Feeling forced to have an interaction with someone, without wanting to be in that interaction.
Note that I’ve included this one in the “unhealthy” category, although there are some situations in which certain uncooperative and toxic people need to be dealt with for the good of everyone else in the group, and in those circumstances, coercing this person is a valid option, because it would be about confronting him with his poor behaviors. Confronting is the healthy flipside of coercing.
Punishing or blaming
Telling someone that something that went wrong was entirely due to them, without considering the entire situation to its fullest (and other contributing factors) and without listening to them or pointing out the things they might have done correctly.
It is sometimes necessary to have conversations with people to let them know when their actions and behaviors have to be sanctioned by negative consequences.
Avoiding conflict and keeping the peace
This has to do with staying clear of what an issue is about, staying clear of expressing one’s true feelings or one’s needs, and therefore keeping the other party in the dark of what they should know to help us make the best out of the situation.
It’s often coming out of fear of offending, of being impolite, of hurting someone’s feelings, or out of thinking what we feel and need is not significant. Sometimes it comes out of fear of not knowing what would happen next, or fear of losing a relationship.
The biggest risk of avoiding conflict is to build resentment for the other person without them knowing, up to the point that we can’t take it any longer and we explode, while they stay flabbergasted not understanding what they missed.
Plan your conversations
For every conversation, you need to have a strategy that’s at the level of the topic at stake.
Think twice before the interaction happens, and ask yourself what is your hope for the best possible outcome for this conversation, for you and for all parties involved. Ask yourself what type of healthy conversation goals do you want, and what types of unhealthy conversation goals do you want to avoid.
On top of goals, also think about the process you will follow to arrive there.
It’s also possible that you need more than one conversation to reach your goal. For example, you might need three separate catch-ups with someone to reach a mutual understanding, and then another two conversations to intervene and influence them. Likewise, a single uninterrupted conversation might start by learning from each other and turn into producing results all at once.
Having a clear idea about what your goals are and how you want to chunk the conversation as a process will help you stay on track and not turn emotional when the conversation might derail or not go as you expected.
Remember to be human
I want to close this article by nuancing some of what I just shared: not all conversations should have a goal.
When spending time with close friends and family, or even some informal time with colleagues, it’s okay for things not to have a goal. Turning everything into a utility-based process and expecting results or value from every conversation and every person is unhealthy.
This type of over-productive mindset ends up making us feel empty and alienated. It’s important to have conversations just to hang out, wander, and exchange fun and enjoyable ideas.
And sometimes, it’s also good not to talk at all, and just to sit and be with someone in silence, as a way to show them we’re here for them.
Where to go next?
The art of conversation is at the center of all human interactions. From here, you could explore many topics, here are some of the ones that come to mind:
- How to communicate your point across in an argument?
- How to have healthy friction in a relationship while not bruising the relationship?
- How to deal with someone who won’t listen?
- How to build rapport in conversations?
- How do you practice active listening?
And a couple of books to dig further: