Alignment Solutions Newsletter: How to Stop the Insanity of Unproductive Conversations

How to Stop the Insanity
of Unproductive Conversations

Alignment solution: There are four simple techniques you can use to change your conversations from unproductive to productive.

Have you ever had the same conversation over and over again because an undesirable behavior or outcome failed to change? Perhaps it’s with an employee who consistently misses deadlines, promises to do better, then continues to be late. Maybe the conversation is with your kids when they don’t do their chores (again). The good news: you can stop this vicious cycle today by making a few simple changes.

One of my presentations last week at an international fire chiefs’ conference was called “Stop the Insanity of Public Safety Conversations: Change the Context.” In it I offered four simple techniques to help change unproductive conversations to productive ones – i.e., those that change an undesirable status quo. Although I can’t guarantee that you always will get the outcome you want, I can say they will get you out of the unproductive rut in which you find yourself. Bonus: the techniques work both inside and outside any kind of workplace.

Technique #1: Ask positive questions
The questions we ask are fateful: they point people in the direction in which they seek answers. If you ask negative questions, people find negative, unproductive responses. Similarly, positive questions will yield positive, productive answers. If you want people to come up with creative solutions, formulate positive questions.

Sample scenario: A project for a major client goes terribly wrong. Which set of questions is more likely to enable your team to devise a productive solution to ensure it doesn’t happen again?

1. You’ve done this kind of project successfully dozens of times. Why’d you mess up this time? Whose fault was this? How did you let this happen? What went wrong?

2. You’ve done this kind of project successfully dozens of times. What does it look like when you execute it perfectly? What do you do right? Who and what enables your success?

Technique #2: Change the question
Unproductive conversations often are the result of asking the wrong questions. Instead of answering such questions, respond by posing your own question that will guide the conversation to a more productive outcome.

Sample scenario: Executives at a retail store known for its exceptional customer service must cut costs. Which question is more likely to result in a thoughtful conversation about how to ensure the store retains its stellar reputation with customers?

3. How much should we cut the training budget this year?

4. What level of customer service do you (executives) want us to provide our customers this year?

Technique #3: Change the context or focus
Just as asking the wrong questions leads to unproductive conversations, so too does providing a context that the other person doesn’t care about, or views as a low priority. Re-frame the discussion by changing the focus or putting it into a context that matters to the other person.

Sample scenario: Despite all their training and discussions of why safety is important, some employees at a manufacturing plant still take shortcuts that jeopardize their safety. Which area of focus is more likely to result in a conversation that changes that behavior?

5. Safety: “Be safe out there!”

6. Courage: “Have the courage to be safe!”
(Thanks to Deputy Chief Mike Froelich, Sylvania Fire-EMS, for this quote)        

Technique #4: Change the level of the conversation
A common definition of “insanity” is doing the same thing over and over again, yet expecting different results. The authors of a book called Crucial Confrontations provide a technique to avoid engaging in repetitive discussions when the undesirable behavior persists: change the level of the conversation. Their contention is that there are three increasingly higher levels of conversation: content, commitment, and relationship. When a conversation doesn’t have the desired result, or enable movement toward that outcome, instead of sticking to the first (content) level, escalate it. (Though this suggestion is a variation on technique #3 above, I include it separately because it is a tremendously powerful tool.)

Sample scenario: A department manager consistently misses scheduled meetings with his employees, causing them to make embarrassing mistakes due to the delay in conveying important product information. Which example below is more likely to correct this undesirable behavior?

7. The executive’s conversation with the manager focuses on the pattern of missed meetings. The manager commits to changing the behavior (content). When the behavior doesn’t change, the executive repeats the previous conversation till the cows come home. The behavior still doesn’t change. 

8. The executive’s initial conversation with the manager is about the latter’s pattern of behavior. When the behavior doesn’t change, the second conversation focuses on the manager’s failure to deliver on his commitment. If the behavior still doesn’t change, the third conversation focuses on the harm to the relationship: the executive no longer can trust the manager because he repeatedly failed to keep his commitment.

Note: sometimes having the “content” level of conversation is enough to get the desired behavior; other times it’s necessary to have the “commitment” level of conversation. My experience is that it seldom is necessary to escalate the conversation to the “relationship” level.

Each of the four techniques described above can save you from the insanity of unproductive conversations. Choose the one that’s most relevant to the situation at hand. While it may not get you everything you want, at minimum it will result in a more productive use of your time and better results than you have experienced.

If you’d like to learn more about the benefits of using positive language, take a look at our article The Transformative Power of Appreciative Language. To find other articles and resources that may be of value to you, I invite you to visit my web site at and my blog at

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© 2016 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

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