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Strategic conversations: part 2: time for action.

Use your preparation combined with non-confrontational communication to get agreement.

Last time, we discussed ways to turn difficult conversations into successful problem-solving sessions through proper planning. Now see how to put your plan into action.


The preparation we suggested had five key elements: (1) think positively about the other person, (2) know your main purpose, (3) anticipate the other person's needs, questions and objections, (4) prepare your responses and counter-responses, and (5) decide what to do in the "worst case." As you move into the conversation, you will see immediately how each phase of preparation pays off.

A successful session begins with a clear, full-hearted expression of goodwill and respect. Nothing else does so much to open the channels of communication. Focus on whatever positive qualities or achievements of the other person you have dredged up in your preparation, and stress your own good intentions. Honestly ask for help--it's one of the surest ways to get cooperation. For instance, you might open a conversation with a difficult colleague in this way: "First, I want to say that I have great respect for your technical skills and your persistence in getting to the root of problems. Now, I would like to ask your help with something that's been on my mind." If you can deliver all this with a bright smile, you're halfway there!

Next, state your main message: what you want to accomplish. Don't lead up to it with background--e.g., "On our last two projects, there were several instances where we failed to communicate, with the result that work was duplicated and some people became confused or annoyed." Starting with such material only invites instant accusations and arguments, and you may never get to your positive purpose. Instead, state that purpose in the most acceptable form: "I'd like to make sure that our projects work out smoothly so everybody is satisfied."

After such a statement of purpose, the other person will often begin to respond, usually in an argumentative way. Your planning should have anticipated this, and you should let the other person speak freely, without interrupting. Your preparation should also have armed you with calm, inoffensively phrased responses to the main objections or questions--say, "Yes, it's perfectly true: I made a mistake there and forgot to check with you what arrangements for outside labs you were planning. The point is, I would like to find some general way to set up continuous communication in our projects so we avoid waste and embarrassment."

Note the focus of your response in the example: it brings the discussion back to the main purpose. No matter how emotional, argumentative or nit-picking the objections that come up, returning to the positive main idea is always a safe, constructive move.


In any strategic conversation, the end result should be an agreement of some sort--perhaps not with your main request, but at least with a step toward it. Anticipating the "worst case" is very helpful in this respect, as it allows you to build stepwise progress without getting dispirited or angry. In our example, your colleague may refuse to see any need to change his own behavior. That doesn't mean you have to walk away without any agreement. You might say: "Well, it can't hurt to set up something like a simple checklist for our projects. I'll put down my thoughts in a memo; see what you think." As long as he doesn't say, "Write all you want; I won't read it," you're walking away with an implicit agreement. (And even if he does respond in that obnoxious "worst" way, he may change his mind if the memo copies the boss or others who are concerned with the problem!)


Next time, we will see how to ensure success of your strategic conversations by avoiding common pitfalls of communication.


Cheryl and Peter Reimold have been teaching communication skills to engineers, scientists, and businesspeople for 20 years. Their latest book, The Short Road to Great Presentations (Wiley, 2003), is available in bookstores and from Their consulting firm, PERC Communications (telephone: +1 914 725 1024, e-mail, offers businesses consulting and writing services, as well as customized in-house courses on writing, presentation skills, and on-the-job communication skills. Visit their Web site at
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Author:Reimold, Peter
Publication:Solutions - for People, Processes and Paper
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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