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How to Have Better Conversations

Procter & Gamble's former CEO offers simple but useful tips for better discussions at work and elsewhere.

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A great deal of our lives is spent talking to people. The proportion may go up for salespeople and down for introverts, but everyone could stand to have more productive conversations. 

Maybe you had good role models or instincts, but if you feel your conversational skills are lacking, a new book by A.G. Lafley, Procter & Gamble’s former CEO, offers good advice on how to make discussions less shallow. 

In the book, Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works, Lafley reveals his principles for fruitful conversation.

"People’s default mode of communication tends to be advocacy--argumentation in favor or their own conclusions and theories, statements about the truth of their own point of view. 

"The stance we tried to instill at P& G was a reasonably straightforward but traditionally underused one: 'I have a view worth hearing, but I may be missing something.' It sounds simple, but this stance has a dramatic effect on group behavior if everyone in the room holds it. One, they advocate their view as a possibility, not as the single right answer. Two, they listen carefully and ask questions about alternative views."

This approach has obvious benefits--it's far more likely to promote problem solving than meetings where each participant argues their point of view. 

Improving the quality of discussions should lead to better decisions and better meetings, but these skills could also strengthen your personal relationships. So how do you employ "assertive inquiry?" Here are three steps:

Advocate your own position, then invite responses. Try saying, “This is how I see the situation and why. How do you see it?”

Paraphrase the other person’s view and ask for their take. “It sounds to me like your argument is this. Is that what you're saying?”

Explain a gap in understanding. “It sounds like you think this acquisition is a bad idea. Could you tell me how you came to that conclusion?”

Advocating for your ideas may help you get your way, but blending assertiveness and inquiry is guaranteed to get people on your side. The reason: "Inquiry leads the other person to genuinely reflect and hear your advocacy rather than ignoring it and making their own advocacy in response," says Lafley. 

How have you improved conversations?

IMAGE: melstampz/Flickr
Last updated: May 17, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.
@EntryLevelRebel




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