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Conversations That Lead to Breakthroughs

Woman with ideaWe’re all so crazy busy, it’s hard to find time to meet with your mentor, boss or colleagues to talk in depth about the challenges you’re facing. Learning to have a conversation that leads to a breakthrough can make all the difference.

Often, when we are able to steal some time to talk, it can show up like a game of Monkey See/Monkey Do: “This is the way I do this, it has always worked for me, and this is how you should do it, too.”

Sometimes the conversation takes on the flavor of a trip down memory lane: “Why, when I started in this industry, the computers still had green diode screens…”

Still other conversations have that Dear Abbey quality: “Now that I understand your problem, here is what you ought to do…”

These approaches can work in some instances, but they generally don’t help the majority of people develop breakthrough thinking and enhanced productivity.  Rather, they alienate the protégé/mentee/employee/colleague, take way too long to get to the point, and fail to produce lasting results.

There is a more effective way to have these exchanges. In our workshops, we teach you how to get to an insight within five to 15 minutes.

We start by helping you to become a keen observer, work with you to enhance your listening and emotional intelligence skills and provide exercises in which you can practice asking reflective questions that will allow you and your conversation partner to think more deeply and develop her own solutions to solving her problems and reaching her goals.

Here are some basic tips to help you begin to learn how to have conversations that lead to breakthroughs:

1. Ask for Permission to Talk: Whether your mentee approaches you with a problem or you approach them with a problem you have observed, start the conversation by asking their permission to talk about it. This allows them to buy-in to having a dialogue and ultimately owning the solution that comes out of the conversation. We often assume that because we are the boss or the mentor, we already have an agreement to talk about anything. Asking permission allows the mentee to choose to be in the conversation at that time or at a later time. It shows you have respect for their time and want their full attention.  If the conversation gets stuck or uncomfortable, asking permission to continue or go deeper helps keep you moving forward. Examples of asking permission:

  • Is this a good time to talk about _______?
  • May I have a conversation with you about the challenges you faced on this project?
  • Can we talk about this is greater detail?May I help you think this through?

2. Set the stage for your conversation: Start by agreeing on how much time the conversation will take. Lay out what you both know about the situation or problem. If the conversation strays, take a moment to review where you are and what your next topic of conversation will be before you move on. This will help you to stay on purpose and re-focus if you need to.

3. Ask Thinking Questions: When you ask thinking questions rather than questions you already know the answers to as if you are testing the person, you are giving them the opportunity to share what they know, how they have been thinking things through, what results they have produced or not, and ultimately to go deeper than they normally do. You are genuinely curious about their answers.You are taking the opportunity to help them see more than they could from a single perspective. If they need information only you have, you would offer it during this part of the conversation. Examples of thinking questions are:

  • How long have you been thinking about this?
  • On a scale of 1-10 how important is it for you to solve this problem?
  • How committed are you to solving this problem?
  • How clear is your thinking about your plan or process?

4. Clarify: This is the next step. Once you have permission for the conversation, place yourselves in it and ask thinking questions, we then clarify their answers.  You will likely go back and forth between asking thinking questions and clarifying several times. You are looking for:

  • What is the person trying to say?
  • What aren’t they saying?
  • What’s behind their words?
  • What are they saying that they cannot hear themselves?

You may have asked your protégé what she’s done so far. She answers,”I spoke to each of the committee members and had a clear discussion about what I expected from them, including outlining what the specific objectives of this project are.”

Your answer might be, “Sounds like you have been very thorough, but I sense you don’t think it’s enough. What do you want to do next?”

Clarifying is not paraphrasing or repeating back what a person has said to you. Clarifying takes your conversation to a higher level. It allows you to mine the gold and distinguish new possibilities. If you want to know if you are clarifying well, just look at them. You will see them nod in affirmation. This reaction lets you know you made a positive impact. Clarifying requires yo to take a risk and trust your intuition. It is a high-level skill that takes practice.

What I’ve given you is a very basic outline for conversations that lead to breakthroughs. Learning to use it easily and effectively won’t happen overnight. Olympic athletes don’t expect to become champions after trying a new skill two or three times. They practice for hours each day, over months and years to reach that level of excellence. Try this out at home with people you feel safe with until it feels comfortable to do. Then take it to work.

Susan Bender Phelps runs Odyssey Mentoring & Leadership. She speaks and delivers corporate training on Mentorship, Leadership, and Communication.  Her book, Aspire Higher, tells true success stories of business and career mentoring and unpacks the essential elements of an effective mentoring partnership.