Masterful Conversations

I’ve mentioned this technique in other posts, but I was searching for it and thought it deserved its own spot. The technique is one that I learned during my 12 months at Intuit in 2006 called Masterful Conversations.

The basic premise of the technique is that we collectively spend all of our time talking about our own opinions and hardly even listen to someone else’s opinion. This creates poor conversations and poor relationships, especially in the work environment.

As a better model, they provided this simple graph to break your role in the conversation into three parts. You are supposed to spend your time in any conversation equally divided between the three parts.

1/3 Inquiry
It’s simple, just ask questions about what the other person said. If they say, “We should buy sauce for the dish!”, then you reply, “What kind of sauce did you have in mind?” There is always a question you can ask. People are never 100% detailed and accurate.

This is also called the Socratic Method.

The Socratic method is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions.

The benefit of inquiry is that it forces the person on the other side of the table to think more specifically about what they are saying. Often, the devil is in the details and inquiry helps people see they may have a flaw in their logic. Also, it shows that you are listening. In fact, it forces you to listen. Listening is actually a crucial skill that rarely gets practiced.

1/3 Reflection
In my first year at Marketo, I would argue with the CEO about some product detail. At one point he said, “Why can’t you just acknowledge what I just said?!” I think rather quickly and was jumping from his point to a conclusion. However, other people do not think at the exact same speed as you (slower or quicker).  So I replied starting with the phrase, “So what I heard you say is _____”.  Immediately, the whole conversation changed. He was open to my opinion because I acknowledged his opinion.

Reflection is crucial because people do not always understand the same sentences in the same way. By reflecting, “I heard you say…” the other person often will say, “No, that’s not what I meant.” Imagine a whole conversation where each party understood the conversation in totally different terms. Reflection fixes that problem and forces the other person to think more carefully about their words and make it clear what they meant.

This will often have the effect of changing the other person’s mind. When you hear an idea it goes through a more stringent filter than when you say an idea. By hearing their own idea back, it is possible for someone to realize the idea has flaws. This is especially useful if the other person does not like you. By mirroring their ideas you are employing cognitive dissonance. They can’t dislike you when you are saying their own ideas back to them.

Keep in mind, reflection is not agreement. You are only acknowledging your understanding of what they said. You are not judging their idea at all. You reserve the right to have an alternative point of view.

1/3 Advocacy
This part is the easiest for people. It’s saying your ideas. Most people spend 100% of their conversation in this mode. This is a practiced method that everyone knows how to do. The key is the 1/3 part. Don’t overdo it. Don’t advocate all the time. It makes you unlikeable.

People are emotional, not logical. We make decisions all the time based on imperfect information and poor communication. Check out my previous post on the UX of Arguments, detailing the reasons people disagree.

If you follow the masterful conversations 1/3 rule, you will notice that your communication quality goes up and people generally like you more.

Recently, a professional woman was stating that as a woman she is perceived as pushy when she interrupts in a meeting, but men are considered assertive. This is, by and large, a fact of company behavior. My suggestion is to interrupt, but 2/3 of the time interrupt to mirror or ask a question. I think (hope) that kind of interruption will change the dynamic in the room and actually give power to the woman and when the 1/3 advocacy comes around, it will get listened to.

This advice is for everyone and I hope it helps. However, it does take practice. Keep at it.

Whatya think?