The purpose of powerful conversations is to influence people and change mindsets. As an FBI agent, I needed to persuade people that it was in their best interest to cooperate with an FBI investigation.
You may need a powerful conversation to change the behavior of one of your colleagues. Or, to convince shareholders that you have a solution to the problem that faces your company. Even more common are powerful conversations where ideas are exchanged, breakthroughs produced, and people feel both challenged and supported.
Powerful conversations establish bonds between people, clarify intentions and create a lasting impression. The words we use, and the way we use them, signal both our savviness and our mindset.
Whether you’re a member of a small team, the CEO of a large company or the short end of the stick who sits next to a boring cousin at Thanksgiving dinner, the way you present yourself through conversation sends an important message and leaves a memorable presence.
This is how to have powerful conversations that will influence people:
1. Explore, not explain
Too often, conversations in the business world do nothing more than explain a point of view or justify a decision that’s been made. There are a couple of reasons for this:
One, the myth of the lone genius dies hard. We are bombarded with stories about how a few creative wunderkinds transform a particular industry. We all know who they are and, quite frankly, most of us are sick and tired of hearing about their genius. Some of it was luck; some of it was talent; and some of it was simply being in the right place at the right time.
Second, a systematic lack of collaboration between teams and line leadership. Oftentimes researchers are asked to come up with ideas and then hand them off to a technical specialist to be vetted. The specialist then turn overs the revised ideas to the marketers, who place their own stamp of approval.
At the end of the line, the original idea submitted by the researchers bears little resemblance to the one in the hands of marketing and sales. Not only does this isolated approach slow things down, it also fails to take into account how problems and solutions can be explored at every level. Ideas that don’t work at the commercial level could be further developed at the research level if they are allowed to work together.
With the use of video conferencing, remote and isolated locations no longer need to a problem. The technology exists to break down the walls and barriers that inhibit innovation and collaboration.
How to make it work for you: If you’re the boss, identify the skill sets of everyone in the company and make sure they talk to people with complementary talents. Match them up with others who would best complement each other to accomplish the company’s goals. Don’t match them up only with people in their department; strip the traditional chain of command structure and devise a flat-line structure so that everyone who has expertise in a particular area has an open-door policy to everyone else.
If you’re not the boss, take the time to identify others in your department, and in the company, who have talents or a skill set that are complementary to yours. Be an example to leadership on ways people can explore collaboration.
2. Add value
People who understand the importance of powerful conversations don’t speak unless they have something to say. They listen to the story of the other person and don’t interrupt. They will ask and probe until they’re certain they’ve connected to the core of the person’s concerns.
Not every thought that comes to mind is a valuable contribution to the conversation. This might be the time to simply listen to the other person. Many times we’re so busy thinking of how we’ll respond that we forget to listen to the person in front of us.
Give other people your undivided attention and an opportunity to be the one to add value to the conversation.
How to make it work for you: Make it a goal to create value to the conversation within 10 minutes of the conversation. Distinguish between small talk and a discussion of value. If you can’t move it down the road, move on to No. 3 below.
3. Embrace silence
Powerful conversations can hold silence with equal heft as a noisy room. Before you jump in with your own thoughts, ask yourself: 1) Are they empty words? or 2) Do they provoke thought? Confident and effective leaders don’t scramble to fill empty space or use filler words like “um” and “uh.” If they don’t have something of value to add, they keep their mouths shut.
They also don’t use weak and indecisive preambles to start their sentence, such as “I think…” They lop them off so the sentence makes a strong and declarative statement: “
I think the marketing strategy could use more descriptive adjectives.”
How to make it work for you: Don’t dominate the conversation, even if you’re leading it. Don’t be the one who rushes in to fill the silence. Instead, wait and let the silence work for you. It gives other people an opportunity to say something and gives you time to think about what is happening in the room.
4. Use simple words
If you read The Federalist Papers, be prepared to take the time to chew on lengthy, complex sentences that contain complicated thoughts. Written in 1787 and 1788, they convey the mindset and thought process of society in those days.
Fast forward to the 21st century, where technology has created an environment that moves and thinks at a rapid pace. As a result, we find that simple words are most effective because we can process them quicker and with accuracy.
People who use big words also run the chance of trying too hard to impress others. Powerful conversations contain simple, few-syllable words that express thoughts in a concise and accurate manner.
How to make it work for you: A thesaurus can be a useful tool to help you pinpoint short, concise and easy-to-understand terms when you try to influence people. Strive to avoid cliches and buzzwords that are overdone and lose meaning over time. Be clever enough to use words that describe what you really mean.
5. Be honest
One of the most powerful conversations we can ever have is to influence people to move from a mindset of “victim of the past” to “owner of the future.” Victimhood is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
While there are many reasons people see themselves as a victim, only a shift in mindset will get them out of this self-fulfilling rut. The Stoics had the perfect answer:
"Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears" ~ Marcus Aurelius
A constructive critic is someone who expects more from you than you expect from yourself. While praise makes us feel good, constructive criticism makes us better.
Wimps often find constructive criticism too harsh. Their feelings get hurt easily, so they retreat into a corner to feel sorry for themselves. They’re afraid of criticism because it can be unkind. Yes, it can, but it can also motivate us because we don’t want to accept that we’re inadequate or not talented enough to succeed. Praise, on the other hand, breeds complacency. It causes us to relax and that can undermine career achievement.
How to make it work for you: Powerful conversations help people develop mental toughness. They are full of honest feedback, not weak platitudes to make people feel better. Go one step further -- make people feel empowered.
6. Ask open-ended questions
When we ask a question that can be answered with one word, it’s a close-ended question. An open-ended question, however, encourages longer answers and further conversations about the answer they gave you.
I love to read books and always look for new ones that are recommended by others. A question like “Do you like to read?” can be answered with one word -- yes or no. However, if I ask “What’s a good book you’ve recently read?” it requires the person to engage in more conversation about 1) why they don’t read or, 2) suggest a book they’ve read. My follow-up question might be, “What did you like about it?”
How to make it work for you: Prepare for powerful conversations that will influence people so you can network at events or find better ways to get to know your neighbors, colleagues, and family. Start off your questions with these words:
- WHAT do you think of ...
- TELL me about ...
- HOW did you hear about ...
Then follow up with:
- WHY do you ...
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the US government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Quy is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.