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Charles Feltman
Executive & Personal Coaching
San Luis Obispo, California
Extraordinarily helpful
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Are You Having the Right Conversations?

Getting and performing good work takes being able to have different types of conversations. You need to have conversations to identify your client's concerns and generate the best solutions. You also need to have conversations that result in action.

Written Feb 07, 2008, read 2741 times since then.


One of my coaching clients, an independent consultant, told me in an exasperated voice that he had a rolodex full of names and direct phone numbers of CEOs, CMOs, COO, even corporate board members. He said he could call any of these people and be sure to have a great conversation about possible opportunities for work with their companies.

“It sounds like this is a problem for you,” I asked. “Why so?”

His answer surprised me at first. “These conversations rarely end up with me actually doing any work, even though the people I’m talking to sound very enthusiastic at the time.”

I asked him to relate to me exactly what was said on a recent call with the CEO of a company he had done a big project for in the past. As we unraveled the interaction it became clear that my client could initiate and sustain a great conversation for possibility, but he never shifted into a conversation for action. The result was that he and this CEO both got excited about the possibilities for what could be done, but there were no specific action steps committed to by either of them beyond let’s “talk some more.”

Interestingly, another client I was coaching at the same had just the opposite problem. He was great at eliciting commitments for action, but took little or no time to explore possibilities with his clients. The result was he often missed opportunities for more business beyond the one thing he initially proposed.

In both cases my clients were missing particular kinds of conversations when they spoke with prospective customers. A number of people who are students of what is called “speech acts theory”, including Julio Olalla, Fernando Flores, and Rafael Echeviera, have identified several different kinds of conversations that are necessary to get the right things done in the best ways.

As any good sales person will tell you, the two mentioned above – conversations about possibilities and conversations to forward action – are both critical when it comes to selling both products and services. People who are good at selling know this instinctively. Those of us who aren’t naturally gifted at sales can improve our track record significantly simply by learning how to distinguish and use key types of conversations.

For example, as my client who loved getting into conversations about what could be done learned and practiced conversations for action he suddenly found that he was actually signing contracts to do much more work. Here is what he began explicitly doing:

1. Have a conversation for possibility that uncovers your prospect’s key concerns and explores how you can help him/her in addressing them. This requires setting your “sales” agenda aside, listening well, asking good questions, offering relevant observations and stimulating ideas, and verifying what you hear. This was the easy part for my client who was a natural at it. Not everyone is, but the good news is it can be learned.

2. Identify one of those possibilities and shift into a conversation for action about it:

3. Identify who, what and when for each possibility. Who else needs to be in the conversation besides the individual to whom you are talking? What is going to be done? By when does it need to be done?

4. Determine who should do what next.

5. Make specific, direct requests of the person you are talking to for what he/she can do. E.g., “Will you send an email to Elaine today telling her I will call her tomorrow to talk about this?” “Will you send me a copy of your internal report by the end of the week?” Notice the direct language here: will you, not can you or would you be willing. “Will you?” asks for a commitment, the other two do not.

6. Get explicit commitments on each request. This may seem obvious, but it is important for the person to make the commitment verbally. “Yes, I’ll do that.” He/she may not be able to do it in the timeframe you’ve requested and it’s often good to follow your “will you?” question with a follow-on like, “Does that timeframe work for you?”

7. Make explicit offers for action on your part. “After I get your internal report I will write up a brief proposal with deliverables and fees and send it to you by Wednesday of next week.”

8. Close with an agreement for a next conversation. “I’ll talk to your admin and get a date on the calendar for the week of the 20th. Will that give you enough time to look at my proposal?”

Getting these two types of conversations right, one for exploring possibilities and one for taking action, can help ensure you get the work you want. As the project moves forward you will probably need to have more conversations for possibility and action, as well as other kinds of conversations to set the right context for your work, to build trusting relationships, to create mutual understanding, and to learn.

Each type of conversation addresses a different aspect of working with others. Each has its own set of conversational moves. And, most importantly, each can be learned. Listen to how you interact with your prospects and clients. Which of these types of conversations do you tend to have effectively? Which do you have difficulty with? Are there conversations that are missing altogether in your interactions with others? Take time to learn and practice those types of conversations you have yet to master. It will make you more effective, more valuable to your clients, and can make your work more fun for you.

Learn more about the author, Charles Feltman.

Comment on this article

  • President/CEO 
Seattle, Washington 
Michael Hasse
    Posted by Michael Hasse, Seattle, Washington | Jun 10, 2008

    I just printed out these bullet points and stuck them over my phone!