What Type Of Conversation Are We Having?
A great way to look like a jackass is to misunderstand what type of conversation you’re in. When someone comes to “run something past you”, they’re not always looking for a blunt, honest opinion. They may just want validation.
If you then give them a blunt honest opinion, you come across poorly, even though your heart was in the right place.
I’ve seen this happen all the time; I certainly got this wrong in the first few years of my career.
One helpful trick I learned is the 30-90 question:
When someone comes to ask your opinion on a presentation they’re about to give, ask them if they’re 30% prepared or 90% prepared.
If it’s 30%, then they’re probably looking to check that they’re talking about the right topic, or that they’re using the right style of presentation. Don’t try and critique their posture or grammar, that’s not the point.
If it’s 90%, they may want advice on which parts of the talk made the most sense, or how well they hid their cue cards. Maybe you can tell them which parts to lengthen or shorten. What they do not want to hear is your suggestion for a different topic, or that they should go back to the drawing board, there’s no time for that.
“But Isaac, isn’t it my job as a friend to help them out to the best of my ability?”
No it isn’t. Your job is to give them the kind of advice that can be implemented, that solves their most pressing problem. You’ve definitely had this happen to you, where someone has undermined you whilst trying to be “helpful”.
The best tip I’ve heard came from one of Col Duthie’s facilitation workshops (Col writes a great blog at colduthie.com). He explained a system called Tell, Sell, Test, Consult, Co-Create and it’s brilliant.
The idea is that there are five types of formal conversation at work, and you should always know which one you’re in. They are:
Tell: Someone needs to get a message across, there is no discussion or input required. E.g. “We are having our Christmas Party on the 22nd of December, everyone needs to be there”
Sell: A decision has been made, and now the speaker wants the audience to buy in. E.g. “We’ve decided to start a running group before work, you should join us, we’ll keep each other motivated!”
Test: A decision has almost been made, but the speaker wants to check if it will work. E.g. “If we created a new version of our product aimed at people your age, do you think they’d buy it?”
Consult: Someone wants your input into a decision they’re making or a problem they’re facing. E.g. “How do you think we could increase our sales in the next three months?”
Co-Create: The speaker is looking to start a new project from scratch, with you as a partner. E.g. “Let’s do something cool that increases traffic to our website”
The trouble occurs when you misread the situation. When someone says “Our new product rolls out next week”, now is not the time to state your opinion on what different product they should have gone with. That’s not helpful.
Vice versa, when someone says “What can we do to increase morale?”, don’t shrug your shoulders and say you’ll go along with whatever they think. That’s not helpful either.
This also applies in reverse. Before you go to speak, ask yourself what type of conversation you want to have. In fact, at my office we often state upfront “This is a (tell vs test vs co-create) conversation…” so that everyone’s on the same page. It’s surprisingly not awkward, and it means nobody puts their foot in it.
Sometimes it’s right to challenge the type of conversation you’re in. This requires you to have a good relationship with the speaker, and you need to be prepared to accept the response you receive. Your bravery here can prevent a bad decision, or it can get you in trouble. Go with your gut.
Above all, thinking before you speak means you have the best possible chance of being helpful, and the least chance of overstepping your bounds.