It's a surefire conversation-stopper, yet we use it all the time: "How are you doing?" We're really asking, "How am I doing?" What we hope to hear is the satisfying last word on the matter, "Fine."
Susan Scott has an antidote to such empty-headed exchanges. In her book, Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time (Viking, 2002), and in her coaching with executives at companies including Microsoft and AT&T Wireless, she argues that whoever said, "Talk is cheap" had it wrong. "The conversation is the relationship," she asserts. "And we build relationships one conversation at a time." Here's how to make them count.
MAKE IT REAL. Many fear the prospect of a "real" talk, but it's the unreal conversations—those lacking in honesty and directness—that should concern us. They are incredibly expensive for the individual and the organization. So begin by recognizing that too careful a conversation is a failed conversation. It merely postpones the conversation that has to take place.
TACKLE YOUR TOUGHEST CHALLENGE TODAY. Burnout doesn't occur because we're solving problems; it occurs because we're trying to solve the same problem over and over. Ask yourself: What is the one thing that we really need to talk about? The problem named is the problem solved. Speak about it with focus and resolve.
BE HERE AND NOWHERE ELSE. While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a company or a career, any single conversation can. Speak and listen as if each conversation is the most important you will ever have with a person. It just might be.
LET SILENCE WORK FOR YOU. Most people mistake talking for conversing. But the air can get so filled with words that everyone eventually tunes out. Insight often comes in the space between words. The more emotionally loaded the subject, the more silence is required. Slowing down a bit will buy time to discover what the conversation really needs to be about.
TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR WHAT YOU'VE SAID. For leaders, there is no trivial comment. The emotional wake that you leave behind is larger than you know. Speak with clarity, conviction, and compassion. And above all, keep the conversation going.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.