Conversational Skills

Conversation covers a lot of territory, and can include any unscripted communication between two or more people. We start learning turn-taking rules as small children, and over time, we absorb shared expectations of social conversations (chitchat, hanging out), everyday conversations (discussions, becoming acquainted), and important conversations (confessions, confrontations). Conversations in a professional business environment encompass all of these, along with some specific types that happen as part of the work process. Contemporary business organizations can also require communication across continents and time zones, creating new expectations for technology-enhanced conversation.

Professionals engage in plenty of social talk during the workday. People tell jokes, tease each other, and commiserate about their children. Even these conversations conform to some rules of professional decorum, and when the topic turns to work, voices drop a few tones, faces get serious, and participants give the verbal and non-verbal cues that the conversation has turned serious.

Conversations in the workplace, even on personal or social topics, must respect the professional environment. A client or vendor might be within earshot. Co-workers need to concentrate on their own work. Diverse personalities, cultures, and work styles call for discretion. Observers will judge nonverbal cues of professionalism, even when they can’t hear the words.

Tone and Language

  • Emotional outbursts, insulting or indecent language, and physical horseplay are never appropriate in the workplace. If the topic is distressing, move the conversation to a private office or off site.
  • Regardless of the topic, maintain a pleasant tone of voice, good eye contact, and attentiveness to others in the conversation. Colleagues should express their feelings, but a professional does that without making a scene.
  • Show professional respect by taking proper turns. Never interrupt or finish other people’s sentences. If someone else says or does something rude, ignore it.
  • Err on the side of formality. Address a new acquaintance with Mr. or Ms. until invited to use a first name, and address your own boss or peers with the title if strangers or subordinates are also in the conversation.
  • Take the time to learn the communication, cultural and personality styles of your colleagues, and take responsibility for communication that others can overhear.

Topics that Cross the Line

  • Avoid topics that provoke emotions or strong opinions. Salaries, politics, and religion get people excited, and even bystanders' emotions can quickly escalate. Protect everyone’s long-term relationships by avoiding hot buttons.
  • Never criticize or gossip about people not in the conversation. Never complain about common acquaintances, former bosses, jobs, or coworkers. Nothing remains confidential, and a professional reputation cannot include negativity.
  • Professionalism does include the capacity to give and receive task-related criticism, which typically happens in a face-to-face conversation. Don’t avoid professional topics just because you aren’t yet comfortable talking about them. To read more about constructive feedback, select Conflict Management from the Professional Attitude menu above.

Harassment, Bullying, and Incivility

  • Some conversations are simply illegal: sexual harassment, explicit jokes or stories, or discriminatory comments will lead to immediate disciplinary action.
  • Teasing, repeated criticism, and gossip characterize bullying, especially from a supervisor or senior colleague. Keep conversations positive, kind, and helpful.
  • Don’t let others suck you into toxic conversations, and take steps to cut off conversations that cross a line. You might not choose to report the behavior, but take responsibility for building a positive conversational climate.

A conversation about work exhibits a distinct focus on work. To an outsider, professional conversations can seem a bit abrupt, perhaps even unfriendly. During a busy day at a corporate office, there’s no real time for “chit-chat” and people get to the point quickly, stay on task, and part with clear action steps.

Choose A Method

  • Don’t assume that your favorite mode of conversation is the best for everyone. Learn to use whatever your colleagues or clients prefer. Only the boss gets to force others do what she likes best.
  • Email, text, or IM chats allow colleagues to time the conversation more conveniently, but when they have to use multiple emails to clarify a point, any productivity advantages are lost. If a topic isn’t going to work out well in writing, save time and just make an appointment to chat by phone.

Choose A Time

  • Don’t assume the conversation should start the minute you think of a topic, or that a person has time to have a productive conversation when you decide to call or drop by the office. That might work out, but more often colleagues will make an appointment to discuss a topic later.
  • Clarify the time available, whether the conversation is impromptu or by appointment. A “conversation” could be a two-minute update, a 20-minute exploration of issues, or a two-hour heart-to-heart. Make sure everyone is on the same page before you begin.
  • When a conversation is scheduled over a meal, some social chit-chat is expected before launching into the topic. At breakfast, business conversation can begin as soon as the coffee is poured. At lunch, make small talk until orders have been taken. Then you can talk business. At dinner, wait for the host to bring business into the conversation.

Any effective business communication follows a three-part organization: state the goal, provide the relevant information, and clarify the decision or follow-up action. A social conversation might ramble across multiple topics, and an important personal conversation might extend across multiple sessions, but a business conversation gets to the point, stays on task, and ends with “who does what by when” (WWW).

Define the Goal
When the conversation turns to work, the very first sentence should define the goal of the communication. In a face-to-face situation, there might be been some “chit-chat” first, but in an email or IM, the first sentence will usually give the conversation topic or goal.

The first sentence might be informal, as when colleagues are chatting in the hallway, and one says, “Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you about that request you put in for a new micrometer.” The topic might come as a formal subject line: “Questions regarding your micrometer request.” Either way, both parties agree on the topic and goal at the beginning of the conversation.

Share Information
Generally, a business conversation typically stays focused on a single topic. There is no rambling from subject to subject; time is usually critical and staying on task is a priority. Keep the conversation moving by limiting conversational turns to 60 seconds or less. When someone asks a simple question, it is not effective (or polite) to go on and on about your reasons or business philosophy or to switch the subject.

A conversation, by definition, is a cooperative effort. Given the stated goal, participants will have an agenda for the conversation—an idea of what they think needs to be covered to accomplish its goal. Effective communicators keep this checklist in mind to keep the conversation on track. Everyone involved in a businesslike, purposeful conversation should be watching the verbal and non-verbal cues that indicate understanding, agreement, disagreement, and relevance to the conversational purpose.

For an involved topic, it is appropriate to prepare a written checklist or keep notes while having the conversation. If one participant seems to be getting off track, others are responsible for clarifying the relevance of the point, either adding that to the agenda/checklist or getting the conversation back to the topic.

Create an Action Step
An effective conversation ends with an agreement about “who does what by when.” There should be a clear understanding of whatever decisions, solutions or questions have been agreed upon, and someone will typically summarize all action that is to be taken as a result of the conversation.

Conversations occur every day in a business organization, but there are a few of specific types of conversations that professionals need to perform especially well.

The fundamental purpose of a networking conversation involves learning about others’ professional interests and expertise, quickly, so that everyone converses with the largest possible number of people. These conversations never escalate into deeper topics that lead to friendship. Even when professionals find personal connections, it would be rude to monopolize a person’s time at a networking event. Instead, cut off the conversation and make a date to meet again later.

Networking conversations seem much like social conversations in terms of organization and style, but topics have some business or professional aspect. Professionals avoid purely personal, private topics entirely (social activities, religious beliefs, medical conditions, etc.) Some personal topics can come up – sports results, family demographics or political events, for instance, — but typically just long enough to discover mutually interesting professional topics.

Preparation for networker conversations begins with an elevator pitch. A clear, professional introduction starts every conversation. Often, there will be a short exchange of “icebreaker” topics to get things started. Be ready to talk about the five most common:

  • Current events-- Subscribe to and regularly read a business publication to have something to say.
  • Sports—Whether or not you follow sports, know what season it is and the names of the home town teams.
  • The event or job at hand-- If you show up at any event, you should know who sponsored it and why.
  • The organization sponsoring the event-- For newbies, asking others about the organization is a great conversation starter.
  • Personal demographics—Focus on topics that have some potential professional valued: where you went to school, your degree, where you currently work or live.

The short but important “body” of the conversation takes you back to the elevator pitch, Explaining the service or product you offer, the project you are working on, or a problem you’re trying to solve will become the basis for an exchange of resources. Then, you’ll gracefully exit the conversation to move on to another new acquaintance.

To learn more about continuing the relationship beyond the first conversation, select Networking Skills from the Communication and Presentation Skills menu above.

The interview is a special type of meeting designed for one person to get information from another. A job interview, appraisal interview, exit interview or disciplinary interview each involves its own special set of questions and appropriate answers, but the format remains the same. The interviewer, generally the person who sets up the event, establishes the purpose, structures the information exchange, generally by asking questions, and clarifies the actions each will take afterward.

Interviews will begin with introductions and steps to establish a positive relationship before getting down to business. Smiles, handshakes and good eye contact are all signals that participants want to engage in honest and open communication. This is also the time to clarify any ground rules: will answers be recorded electronically or in writing? Is the interviewee giving permission to be quoted? Will the interview write up be reviewed by the interviewee before any publication?

Interviews are normally structured as a series of questions, which the interviewee answers. The interviewer should prepare questions ahead of time, and the interviewee prepares information or resources ahead of time in order to answer the questions accurately and completely. Sometimes an interviewer provides written questions ahead of time, or perhaps a list of topics he or she wishes to cover. An interviewer will sometimes allow the interviewee to ask a few questions or make a statement.

At the end of any interview, either the interviewer or the interviewee can initiate a summary and action step. Both parties will clarify the next step, which generally involves the use of the information gathered in the interview. A clarification of any continued communication or business relationship is also appropriate. After the interview, one party or the other will often send a thank you letter, note or email.

For more on job interviews, see Career Vision Strategies in the Organizational Awareness menu above.

Most professionals will meet regularly with a manager, supervisor or mentor to discuss job performance and the career path. The format can be a formal appraisal interview, but more often these conversations exhibit a casual atmosphere. Many companies have a policy of regularly scheduled one-on-ones, but a boss might simply stop by a worker’s desk or casually pull her aside for a short “chat” about a performance topic. Regardless of the exact format, there are a few topics that every professional needs to be ready to discuss at a moment’s notice.

Expectations and Metrics
You absolutely must know the objective expectations of performance for your position. These might be fairly general areas of responsibility, but they might involve adherence to specific goals or policies. Each job is different, but every job involves goals. For most of the expectations, there will also be objective, measurable standards to meet. You must know whether you’ve met your own goals, and you should be able to explain, clearly and with support, why you did or did not.

Current Activities
Most of your current activities are probably directed toward meeting the expectations or goals of your position. Whether you’re meeting them or not, you should be able to explain, with details and good reasons, how you are going about doing your job. You should be able to discuss the resources you have or need, the processes you are using, and the outcomes you expect to see.

If you have embarked on any kind of project or extra responsibility, you should be able to explain what it is, why you’ve chosen to take it on, and what you hope to accomplish. Personal initiative will have a positive effect on your career, and you have to make sure your managers know what you’re up to and why.

Goals and Plans
Specific career moves aren’t always a topic, but these conversations happen within the context of long-term career planning. A professional should be able to explain how the responsibilities of the current job are preparing him for the next. This means having a vision of the next few steps on the career ladder, a good sense of what preparation is needed to take each step, and a realistic understanding of how far along that preparation might be.

Long before the invention of telephones, internet chat rooms, and Facebook, a conversation meant the face-to-face talk of human beings. Those still happen, but we’ve vastly expanded the ways in which people can engage in communication exchanges. Each technology has some advantages—and some disadvantages. One of the harder tasks of professional communication is picking the right one to use.

Nonverbal cues remain the most important advantage of face-to-face communication. People who are looking at each other give important social signals. Eye contact, smiles (or frowns), and posture all signal greetings and interest in the relationship, even when the words refer only to the business task.

Harmonious relationships develop when people imitate each other at an unconscious level. This two-way mirroring builds rapport. Some excellent communicators deliberately build rapport by gently synchronizing their positions, gestures, postures, words, breathing, vocal tone, and facial expressions with others. Whether deliberate or not, this is perceived as fitting in with others’ social expectations. Face to face conversations are most productive when everyone exhibits similar behaviors, gestures, and facial expressions.

Telephones are vital for conversations that involve building rapport with colleagues or clients, and this should be the primary technology for any conversation that involves more than a simple exchange of information. Executives typically spend at least an hour a day on the phone and many spend more (Roever, 1999).

Effective Calls
Phone calls should be short and on topic. An effective caller will often make a list of the items to cover. When expecting a call from someone else, it is polite to have all the files pulled and ready to discuss. Some professionals will maintain regular hours during which they accept calls, using voicemail or making appointments by email so that they can be ready for a productive phone call.

Professionals often prefer cell phones so that one number will always reach them. Businesslike use of a cell involves

  • Stepping outside a meeting or away from a conversation to take or make a call
  • Turning off audible ring tones when participating in any other kind of meeting or event
  • Avoiding loud, cute, long, or otherwise embarrassing ring tones

Using a phone’s speaker allows a conversation while working with papers or computer, or to allow several people to join the conversation. Several important protocols apply:

  • Never use the speaker unannounced. Callers anticipate privacy, and you must disclose any chance that your conversation might be overheard.
  • Check for audio quality. The fact that you can hear the other person doesn’t guarantee that he or she can hear you.
  • Consider your colleagues. Unless you work in a private office, use headphones and don’t speak more loudly than you would for a regular phone call.

By one estimate, 90% of the telephone use in business organizations involves voicemail (Davis, 2001). There are professional expectations at both ends: setting up your own voicemail message as well as leaving a message for someone else. When both are done effectively, it’s possible to conduct a productive conversation entirely by voicemail. If you find yourself playing “phone tag” you might be doing something wrong.

  • A short voicemail greeting should provide complete information about the party reached (full name, title, and company) and when messages will be answered, as well as guidance about the best times to call again.
  • Those who travel frequently or keep an irregular schedule will often record a new message daily, providing schedule information or alternate contacts for emergencies or specific information.
  • Maintain privacy when retrieving messages. Unless your greeting warns callers that messages are not private, you have an ethical obligation to maintain the privacy of their communication.
  • When leaving a message, include all relevant information so that no follow up phone call is needed. This might be a clear request for information, or information that had been requested by the other person. It is unprofessional to simply ask for a return call.
  • If a call-back is necessary, include all the information needed to make that a productive phone call: the caller’s name, as well as title, company or department if it is not an internal call, a return phone number and best time to call, a specific description of the topic or information that will need to be prepared prior to the call.
  • Speak slowly and clearly, and repeat key information such as phone numbers or account numbers.

Broadcast messages
Broadcast messages are useful for sending information to teams, work groups or a far-flung sales force. The message reaches everyone’s telephone at once, in exactly the same words, and can be easier and quicker to create than a written memo or email. Many organizations will have blocks on the telephone system so that only selected people have the ability to broadcast messages to everyone’s telephone.

Fax machines are an old use of phone lines, but remain a useful method of sending copies of documents when email or a scanner is unavailable. They are most often used when a faxed signature will meet legal requirements.

  • Complete the cover sheet. When something goes wrong with the technology, complete information can avoid follow-up phone calls or multiple faxes. The recipient needs to know how many pages are supposed to be arriving and how to contact you by phone if there is a problem.
  • Don’t send a fax unannounced. Fax machines are generally shared by many people in an office. Message might be sitting in plain sight if the recipient is not there the pick it up, and the machine might sit in an out of the way place where a message sit unnoticed for days.

The most common type of communication in many businesses involves computer-based mail or messaging. Expectations of formality, content, and transmission vary widely across functions, industries, and generations. Learn how others want to use these technologies; never assume that your own preferences are acceptable to every colleague or client.

Email is quick and easy but lacks the contextual and non-verbal cues that convey emotions or understanding. It should never be used as a substitute for oral conversation (Conlin, 2002), or to send negative, sensitive, or confusing information, or in situations that require negotiation.

Co-workers will often zap quick messages back and forth, holding a virtual conversation that looks much like texting or instant messaging (Munter & Rogers, 2003). This can become a productive conversation, particularly because it takes much less time than finding or phoning each other, but this informal format is not appropriate for emails to clients or colleagues outside the immediate work team. (See more details in Business Documents on the Writing and Reasoning Skills menu.)

Instant Messaging
Chat or Instant Messaging has become an important tool of communication (Crockett, 2001; Chen, Donahue & Klimoski, 2003). Many professionals will keep a chat window open, allowing them to engage in conversations even from separate offices—or continents. IM is especially useful for avoiding tiny conversational email messages that clutter up an inbox (Chen, et al., 2003). Text messaging can work in a similar way, but since users are not at their computers, the emphasis is less about staying constantly in touch and more about the immediacy of the message. If your company uses IM

  • Sign onto the system so that you do remain available. Stick to business.
  • Use an “away from keyboard” notice if that is your office protocol
  • Turn off the sounds to minimize distractions for yourself and others.
  • Consider security, in many systems, messages last forever.
  • Protect your professional image. Quick and informal never means sloppy or rude.

Message Boards
Internal message boards or social media platforms allow employees from all over the world to converse. The specific technologies vary, but use features to foster the advantages of face-to-face communication:

  • Create a positive first impression. Use identification features such as photos, names, and mini-bios to create a positive, friendly, and professional image.
  • Stay on topic. With thousands of people using a system, use features that track a conversation. Tags might identify business units, functions, or current company-wide projects. Subject lines indicate the topic of the conversation.
  • Keep up. Check for messages regularly, or use settings to “follow” people or topics so that the messages come to your email. Timeliness expectations in a multi-national organization will allow for time zones, but professionals must never disappear from a conversation.

Most large organizations use teleconferencing and videoconferencing software to conduct meetings, and many professionals use the same type of service to set up remote conversations, especially when tough problems or negotiations are involved. Even free services, such as Skype or Google Hangouts, can help to build rapport with a colleague, or simply avoid the pitfalls of written communication.

Conversations with video images nearly create a face-to-face conversation, but keep in mind the effect of background images. A close colleague might forgive your messy office, but a vendor or client probably shouldn’t see it all.

Pay careful attention to non-verbal cues. Video technology can be great, but even with good camera resolution and bandwidth, the human brain doesn’t process cues quite as well in two dimensions.

Off-screen activities can affect your conversation as well, and it pays to let each other know what they would have been able to see for themselves in a face-to-face setting.

If there are multiple participants in a phone conversation, whether by speakerphone or conference call technology, be sure that everyone knows who is speaking. Introduce everyone in the “room” at the beginning of the conversation. Even if you know each other well, it’s also helpful to self-announce contributions. Others can’t see you lean forward and open your mouth, so beginning with “Jim here-I think we should do this…” or “From the accounting perspective, let’s consider…” helps others quickly orient to who is talking.

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