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Conversations The Power of Dialogue

We (the authors) didn’t always spend our time noodling over crucial conversations. In fact, we started our research into orga­ nizational and personal excellence by studying a slightly different topic. We figured that if we could learn why certain people were more effective than others, then we could learn exactly what they

did, clone it, and pass it on to others.

To find the source of success, we started at work. We asked people to identify who they thought were their most effective




colleagues. In fact, over the past twenty-five years, we’ve asked over twenty thousand people to identify the individuals in their

organizations who could really get things done. We wanted to find those who were not just influential, but who were far more influential than the rest.

Each time, as we compiled the names into a list, a pattern

emerged. Some people were named by one or two colleagues. Some found their way onto the lists of five or six people. These

were the good at influence, but not good enough to be widely

identified as top performers. And then there were the handful

who were named thirty or more times. These were the best-the clear opinion leaders in their areas . Some were managers and

supervisors. Many were not.

One of the opinion leaders we became particularly interested

in meeting was named Kevin. He was the only one of eight vice

presidents in his company to be identified as exceedingly influ­

ential. We wanted to know why. So we watched him at work.

At first, Kevin didn’t do anything remarkable. In truth, he looked

like every other VP. He answered his phone, talked to his direct

reports, and continued about his pleasant, but routine, routine.

The Startling Discovery

After trailing Kevin for almost a week, we began to wonder if he

really did act in ways that set him apart from others or if his

influence was simply a matter of popularity. And then we fol­ lowed Kevin into a meeting.

Kevin, his peers, and their boss were deciding on a new loca­ tion for their offices-would they move across town, across the state, or across the country? The first two execs presented their

arguments for their top choices, and as expected, their points were greeted by penetrating questions from the full team. No vague

claim went unclarified, no unsupported reasoning unquestioned.




Then Chris, the CEO, pitched his preference-one that was both unpopular and potentially disastrous. However, when peo­

ple tried to disagree or push back on Chris, he responded poorly. Since he was the big boss, he didn’t exactly have to browbeat people to get what he wanted. Instead, he became slightly defen­ sive. First he raised an eyebrow. Then he raised his finger. Finally

he raised his voice-just a little. It wasn’t long until people stopped questioning him, and Chris’s inadequate proposal was quietly accepted.

Well almost. That’s when Kevin spoke up. His words were

simple enough-something like, “Hey Chris, can I check some­ thing out with you?”

The reaction was stunning-everyone in the room stopped breathing. But Kevin ignored the apparent terror of his col­ leagues and plunged on ahead. In the next few minutes he in essence told the CEO that he appeared to be violating his own decision-making guidelines. He was subtly using his power to move the new offices to his hometown.

Kevin continued to explain what he saw happening, and when

he finished the first crucial minutes of this delicate exchange, Chris was quiet for a moment. Then he nodded his head. “You’re

absolutely right,” he finally concluded. “I have been trying to force my opinion on you. Let’s back up and try again.”

This was a crucial conversation, and Kevin played no games

whatsoever. He didn’t resort to silence like his colleagues, nor

did he try to force his arguments on others. As a result, the team chose a far more reasonable location and Kevin’s boss appreci­ ated his candor.

When Kevin was done, one of his peers turned to us and said, “Did you see how he did that? If you want to know how he gets

things done, figure out what he just did.” So we did. In fact, we spent the next twenty-five years discov­

ering what Kevin and people like him do. What typically set




them apart from the rest of the pack was their ability to deal with crucial conversations. When talking turned tough and stakes were high, they excelled. But how? Kevin wasn’t that different. He did step up to a tough issue and help the team make a better choice, but what exactly did he do? Did he possess learnable

skills, or was what he did more magical than manageable? To answer these questions, first, let’s explore what Kevin was

able to achieve. This will help us see where we’re trying to go. Then we’ll examine the dialogue tools effective communicators routinely

use and learn to apply them to our own crucial conversations.


If you’ve seen the movie City Slickers, you may remember a scene where the crusty character Curly explains that if you want to suc­

ceed in life you have to do one thing. Then, in typical Hollywood fashion, he explains that he’s not about to tell you what that one thing is. You have to figure it out yourself.

We won’t pull a Curly. We’ll reveal the one thing. When it

comes to risky, controversial, and emotional conversations, skilled people find a way to get all relevant information (from themselves

and others) out into the open. That’s it. At the core of every successful conversation lies the

free flow of relevant information. People openly and honestly

express their opinions, share their feelings, and articulate their theories. They willingly and capably share their views, even when their ideas are controversial or unpopular. It’s the one thing, and it’s precisely what Kevin and the other extremely effective com­ municators we studied were routinely able to achieve.

Now, to put a label on this spectacular talent-it’s called dia­ logue.

di·a·logue or di·a·log (di’ a-lOg”, -log) n The free flow of meaning between two or more people.


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