The Art of Concise Conversations
Stick to the Point – Humanely
Does this sound familiar? One of your colleagues phones you for advice about her project. However, instead of getting right to the point, she spends 20 minutes telling you about her son's latest baseball game, your boss's recent promotion, and the office manager's new shoes.
Or even worse, there's your co-worker who makes a point, and then spends the next half hour saying it over and over in several different ways – or he keeps going over the same conclusions you've both already agreed on. It seems like your clothes will go out of style before the conversation ends.
Have you been in situations like these? The business world (and the world in general) is filled with people who don't seem to know how to stick to the subject. This not only affects your working relationships, it can also waste a lot of your time. However, it's important to build relationships with your colleagues. A lot of this happens in unstructured conversations – the same conversations that may be considered "time wasters."
So how do you find the right balance? How can you have productive conversations, and still leave room to have a little fun and establish relationships with your co-workers and clients?
We'll give you some practical approaches to different types of conversational "time wasters."
Understand Your Audience
All of us are on different schedules, with different amounts of work that we have to do on different days. It's important to realize that just because one day you have time for a long, unstructured conversation, this doesn't mean that your colleague also has time. She might have a deadline to meet – and the more you talk, the more you may add to her stress because she needs to get back to her office. This is not the time for "relationship building"!
Before you start any conversation, try to find out your colleague's situation. Does she have time to talk? If not, then get to the point and say what you have to say. She'll probably appreciate it.
Discuss One Issue at a Time
We've probably all listened to someone who tries to discuss seven issues in three minutes, all of which need careful consideration. Remember how you felt when this happened? You were probably overwhelmed and unable to process all the information.
People need time to think about issues. If you have a lot of topics to discuss, don't try to talk about all of them at once. Bring up one point, and then spend time talking about it. This allows the person you're talking to to focus full attention on that topic. It also makes the most of the time you spend talking with your colleague, and it enables you to get quality input about each issue.
It helps to list all the issues you want to discuss at the beginning of your conversation, and prioritize the most important. This makes it easier for everyone to keep track of things – and if you run out of time, at least you've covered the most important topics.
Yes, you've probably heard about how important active listening is, but there's a reason why we're discussing it yet again: Active listening can help you avoid wasting time when you're talking with someone.
If you spend too much time thinking about what you're going to say, you may miss important points that the person you're talking to makes. As a result, the conversation can take much longer than it should.
When you really listen to what your colleague says, you're better able to respond. You make the best use of your conversation time, instead of discussing the same issues over and over again. You also show respect, and you demonstrate that you value the other person's opinion.
During our workday, we can have several different types of conversations. We talk on the phone, we meet face-to-face, we meet in groups, and we chitchat, having casual conversations around the office.
Here are some ways to make the most of your time in each of these situations.
- Before you make the call, know exactly what you need to talk about. Spend just a few moments thinking about points to discuss. This saves time later, because you don't have to try to think of issues during the conversation.
- Know what action or decision you'd like to result from the conversation. Write it down, and keep it in front of you to stay focused.
- Don't bring up a point more than once. Say what you want to say, and then wait for a response.
- If someone asks you a question and you don't know the answer, be honest – don't start to talk when you don't really have anything to say. Ask for a moment to organize your thoughts. If you need more time, tell the other person that you'll respond later.
- Talking in person with someone can often turn into a struggle for power – it can seem that whoever talks the most is the winner. If this sounds like something you do, then make an effort to give up that control. Don't try to dominate the conversation by talking more than the other person. All you're doing is wasting time and letting your ego take over.
- If your colleague loves to gossip all afternoon, then don't make it easy for him. When he comes into your office, stand up – and don't sit back down until he leaves. You can also keep a stack of books on your office chair so he can't sit down.
- In meetings, we can often hold onto an opinion or idea, and then "compete" with our colleagues who have opposing ideas. Don't focus on defending your position, instead of listening to what others say. This can waste time, prevent learning, and cause stress on the group. If you have a point, write it down so that you don't have to hold it in your memory, and then listen carefully to what others are saying. If your point isn't addressed, you can make it when you need to.
- Meetings can be the perfect place for people who "like the sound of their own voices." If your group has someone like this, then place a time limit on everyone. When people get up to speak, give them a maximum amount of time to make their point (for example, three minutes). You can even use a timer – when the timer rings, they have to sit down.
- When you're with a group, remember that everyone is there to get something done. This includes discussing ideas, brainstorming, and making decisions. A lot of group time gets wasted over complaining, gossiping, or focusing on problems instead of solutions. The group is there for action, so focus on what must get done.
Office Chitchat and Casual Conversations
- While office small talk, gossip, and casual conversations are an important part of relationship building, try to stay in your office when you have a lot of work to do. This way, you won't run into others who want to talk when you don't have time. If you must leave your office, and then colleagues pull you aside, make sure you tell them where you're going. For example, you can say, "Is this going to be quick? I'm on my way to a meeting."
- Use your lunch hour to connect with colleagues, especially if your days are really busy. Go out for lunch with someone each week to have time for casual talk. Then you won't use your work time to build relationships with other team members.
Because our days are filled with so many different types of conversations, we must find a balance between "relationship building" conversations and focused, productive conversations. (To be successful in the business world, we need both.)
Try to understand your listeners' goals before you start conversations. If they don't have time to talk, then you know it's important to keep the discussion short. Bring up one issue at a time, and use active listening when your colleague talks. Plan your conversations in advance – know what you want to discuss and what decisions or actions need to result.
And, no matter what types of conversations you have, pay attention to what's being said. Make your point, and stick to the issue.