How do we have better conversations?
Peter was still reflecting on his quick chat with the lady at the petrol station and it struck him how many times the lady had said the word “but” in just a few minutes.
Recently, he has become aware of avoiding the word ‘but’ on the back of a conversation he had with his colleague Alan.
Alan was one of the business analysts in Peter’s team and he seemed to know a fair bit about communication. It had been mid-morning so when Alan popped up with the friendly “Fancy a coffee?”, Peter didn’t think twice and they made the short way to one of the coffee shops in the building.
There was always a queue, the coffee was good and the place was busy. Alan spoke first as he was preparing to pay for both coffees “Listen, Pete, I hope you don’t mind a small piece of advice..?”
“Not at all!” said Peter and added “Tell me which word did I get wrong this time?” not able to contain his smile anymore. Alan was famous for correcting people’s vocabulary which he usually did in a very fine way but that didn’t stop people joking.
“Funny you should say that!” said Alan smiling. “I wanted to talk to you about the word “but” – and before you ask that’s with single ‘t’.”
Peter liked Alan’s witty humour so he joined in “But but but… I like saying it!”
“Let me explain and please bear with me,” said Alan. “As you know our work is different, challenging and we often work on the edge of the unknown, and discover the best solution as we go. Often it’s a very fine line between making progress in the right or the wrong direction”
“I hear you.” nodded Peter, now listening with concentration.
Alan continued “I know you are already quite good at getting people with different views to work together well and I think what I’ll tell you will help you further. I have two examples for you and I think they’ll illustrate it better than me explaining.”
“In the first example, every person begins their response with But. So it goes like this
Person A: I think we should do a team lunch
Person B: But we won’t be able to get everyone to join?
Person A: Ok, but if we don’t try we won’t know?
Person B: But it will take too much time to organise
Person A: I am willing to put in the time
Person B: But you’ll never get everyone to agree on a venue
Does this sound familiar?” asked Alan
Peter nodded. “Now consider the second example” continued Alan
“Person A: I think we should do a team lunch
Person B: Yes and we should give people plenty of time so most of them can join.
Person A: Yes and we can list several options in case some people can’t eat certain cuisine
Person B: Yes and if we share the workload it won’t take too much time
Person A: Yes and we can make it totally optional so people are more relaxed about it
Person B: Yes, I can start by listing the venues
Now, tell me Pete, which one do you think will result in a better outcome?” asked Alan “No contest here, it’s obviously the second one’ replied Pete.
“Great”, said Alan. “ This is because of a change of one word. ‘Yes and’ gives you a positive notion and helps the conversation to a better outcome. This is something I learned in Improv which is a technique used in improvisation theatre. It’s based on three principles in total and this is the first one.”
“Fascinating!” exclaimed Peter. “I can see how this can be useful with the open questions I often ask. Do you mind telling me about the other two principles”
“Glad you are interested” replied Alan. “I’ll briefly mention them to you and I’ll point you to a book I read, the rest is up to you!”
“Sure, I know how it works” grinned Peter.
“Once you’re having a ‘Yes and’ conversation you have to listen for offers. Remember this comes from improvisation, you have no lines, so you need to listen carefully and jump in on offers. Paying 100% attention is crucial here.”
“Got it” replied Peter. He had recently read a book on listening and had a lot more appreciation about it.
“The final principle is that you have to make the other party look good. You are not in the conversation to compete but to collaborate and make each other look good. You follow these three principles and you can Improv your way through any conversation” added Alan
“OK but surely, this requires both parties to participate. How about if the other person is still competing? asked Peter. Alan clearly thought the question was good.
“It’s a good point, Pete. You can’t always expect that however even if you’re the only ‘Yes and’ participant, you will still end up with a better outcome compared to both go you being a ‘But’ participant. And you will find that it is infectious and in many cases, the others will follow your lead” And with that Alan passed Peter a note with the Improv book title he promised him and got up ready to go back to the team area.
Peter bought the book on the spot. “This is golden”, he thought as he was imagining all the situations in which he could use the Improv method.
Welcome to our blog!
About the author
Plamen is a LeanStack coach and an experienced Software Delivery consultant helping organisations around the world identify their path to success and follow it.