Conversations for Effective Action
In your work, and in your life away from work, you participate in conversations. People speak, and people listen. But more is happening than appears; promises are made, requests are made, invitations are issued, proposals for new projects are presented. Things happen in conversations. In fact, it is in conversations that people make things happen. A conversation requires a speaker and a listener and is always about something — about what new car to buy, who to hire, what restaurant to eat at and a thousand other possibilities and commitments.
Only four things, however, actually occur in any conversation. These are Basic Linguistic Commitments. They are requests, promises, assertions and declarations. These commitments can be practiced so they become effective tools for communication to help you better get you what you want in every dialogue. Remember, communication is the most highly reimbursable skill there is, and your effectiveness in conversation and communication may be the difference between business success and failure.
When you request someone to perform an action for you, implied in the request is your commitment to being satisfied if the other person fulfills your request to your standards. In order for this to actually occur though, you need to be specific; when you want the action performed, how you want it done, etc. The more specific the request, the more likely the person receiving the request is to understand it and fulfill it accurately. So, when you make a request it is critical to communicate the conditions under which you will be satisfied. Suppose you wanted your son to go to the store for milk. Make the request, “Tom, I need some milk,” and you might get a pint sometime tomorrow. A more effective request would be more specific, “Tom, would you please go to the convenience store and get a gallon of 2% milk right now?” You are more likely to get what you want with this request. Every request should specify:
• When you want the action to be completed. (“I need the report on my desk no later than Wednesday, the eighth, before noon”).
• What is involved – “I want the report to contain information on X and Y and a recommendation for next actions.”
• Who else is involved – “Please get information from Bob and make sure that Joan also gets a copy.”
• Why it needs to be done. Not always, but sometimes it is necessary to explain. You might want to ensure the person gets your urgency, for instance, “This is mission critical to the $5 million dollar sale next week.”
• Any limitations or other factors – “I want this to be 20 pages or less and I’d like a bullet point summary on the first page.”
You may promise to perform an action at some time in the future; perhaps in response to a request of you (“I promise to bring you the report before noon, Wednesday the eighth.”). A proposal or counter-offer is also a promise, conditional on the other person accepting your terms (“I promise to bring you the report at noon on Tuesday the seventh, if you will approve my working from home on Monday”).
In promising, you commit yourself to fulfilling the requestor’s conditions of satisfaction, or those you offered. As with a request, the conditions of satisfaction must be mutually agreed upon and clear. Often within your network of familiar people, certain conditions of satisfaction are assumed. For example, you might say, “Give me the report by Friday,” when you also mean it should be typed and proofread, on company letterhead and the other person knows this. Many errors begin with this kind of expectation. It isn’t an agreement until both parties understand exactly what’s being committed to.
You may assert that something is so (e.g., “I delivered the report”). In making an assertion, you commit yourself to provide evidence in support of its truth, should you be asked for it.
A declaration is not a claim that something is so, it is making it so. Judgments are declarations (e.g., “This report was done badly”). Other declarations produce new possibilities (“We could begin to report by e-mail…”), or even new institutions or situations (“We are now open for business…”), or even new objects—an inventor may declare his invention of a new device. Acknowledgements can be simple assertions as well (“I received your report”). They can also be declarations of gratitude or recognition (“I received your report — good work!”).
We distinguish two kinds of conversations:
1. Conversations for Action
Here, requests and promises are primary and produce action. You ask your associate to present you with a new budget proposal by Friday. He promises to do so. Those are the crucial moves in a simple Conversation for Action. It produces a future action—the presenting of the new budget proposal.
2. Conversations for Possibilities
Here, declarations are primary. In speaking with your associate, you jointly declare the possibility of a particular new product. You make no request to begin production or marketing, but you produce the possibility for such actions. The result of a Conversation for Possibility is the announcement of a possibility that is ready for, but not yet put into action. Often, Conversations for Possibilities take place first with ourselves in a mood of wondering, of speculation, of exploration. “I wonder what would happen if …?”, “What can we make happen here?”
These types of conversations and the basic linguistic commitments are familiar to you, although probably not in the terms we have used to distinguish them. You already have Conversations for Possibilities and Conversations for Action; you already make and listen to requests and promises; and you already invent domains of possibilities and participate in conversations with them. By being more intentional about how you both speak and listen, you can use conversations to create more effective action. We challenge you to pay closer attention to your conversations and the words you choose in order to communicate more clearly and get the results you intended. To learn more winning strategies for stress free communication, click here:
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