Coach’s Corner Blog

How to Turn “Bad” Conversations into “Good” Ones

April 8, 2015 by Leave a Comment


One of the better books on building relationships I ever read was called Powerful Conversations. You might be asking “don’t you mean a book on communicating?” No, because the only way we really build relationships is with really effective conversations and I am here to tell you that we can all work on those in order to communicate better.

Phil Harkins, the author, identifies these elements of good conversations:

Building Relationships

To show you are interested in the other’s position and willing to seek win-win solutions.

  • Sense of mutual respect
  • Active listening, even with differences
  • Strengthening our relationship

Gaining Understanding and Perspective

Only by digging into what is important and meaningful to another can you craft the best solutions for all involved.

  • Acceptance, lack of being judged
  • Developing shared meaning
  • Learning something new or important

Achieving Focus

In the manic world in which we operate, finding ways to sort through the volumes of options to focus on what we can accomplish together.

  • Taking the time to reflect on what’s important
  • Exploring questions that matter
  • Strengthened our mutual commitment

We have all had conversations where we exchanged valuable insights, built upon our mutual understanding and derived excellent options for actions that can best be said to demonstrate that “none of us is as smart as all of us”.  It’s a very fulfilling thing when that happens; however, Harkins also acknowledges that the opposite can be true as well – that what he characterizes as “bad conversations” arise.

The “communication vibration” that occurs between the sender of a message and the receiver of the message provides you a lot of clues as to whether the message is getting through or not.

Harkins identifies 7 elements of “bad conversations” and I have suggested several responses you may use with each to try to turn around the flow of the interaction. With several of these questions, you are “calling” the other person on their behavior and letting them know you would like them to take another approach or continue the conversation later. This can be a very good way to make better use of each person’s time by having a dialogue when all sides are ready to be as constructive and positive as possible.

Please review these various concerns about the messages you may have received:

Unclear, poorly expressed content:

  • I’m not sure if I understand the message here. Could you rephrase / repeat that?
  • Let me see if I’m clear on your request / statement / observation. What you’re saying is ____. Does that summarize it accurately?
  • I’m sorry, but I’m not familiar with that topic / definition / term / what you mean by ____. Could I ask you to clarify that?

Unfocused content:

  • I seem to hear several different issues here. Can we separate and then prioritize them to focus our discussion?
  • We were speaking about “X” originally and now we are talking about “Y”. Can you tell me how they are related or should we just deal with one at a time?
  • You’ve really got a lot of stuff / issues / material here. Could I ask you to break it down into the key points / concerns you wish us to address?

Frequent interruptions:

  • Could I suggest we close the door / hold the calls while I get a good understanding of this issue?
  • You seem to be a more accomplished multi-tasker than me. To help me out, could we stick to this one issue right now?
  • If this is not a convenient time, let’s pick a time that’s good for us both. (Use this if things look really out of control when you enter someone else’s office)
  • It really seems like you’ve got a lot happening right now. Should we consider rescheduling? (Use this if someone gets interrupted while you are with them or fails to give you full attention)

Unexpressed feelings or beliefs:

  • You seem very sure of your position on this issue. What led you to believe that?
  • Can you tell me how all this is affecting you (and perhaps your team / group)?
  • If I were in your shoes, I might feel angry / frustrated / disappointed / betrayed / excited / anxious about this situation. How is it affecting you?
  • In speaking with others about this situation, what are people’s impressions of what’s going on and the reasons for it? What are your thoughts?

Unspoken wants and needs:

  • If you had no limitations here, what would you want to happen?
  • For you (or your team) to really make an impact in this situation, what do you need from the organization / group / team / me?
  • It appears no one has asked your opinion on what you would like to see happen here. Can you give me your suggestions?

Harsh voice and tone:

  • I can tell from the intensity of your voice that you are upset / angry / disappointed / frustrated. Is this going to be a good time to speak about this or should we find another?
  • The words you are choosing to characterize our teammates / the other group / function / will not help us in thinking through to a win – win solution. (See above – Unexpressed feelings or beliefs)

Inconsistent, non-verbal signals or unresponsive body language:

  • I don’t feel as though I am making myself clear. Can I clarify anything for you?
  • Based upon my reading of your body language, it appears that I am not able to be very convincing. Do you want to continue this discussion or think about it some more? Can we schedule a time to reconvene (if they decide to think about it)?
  • You appear, just based on your body language, to dismiss my suggestions / are upset by my ideas / to reject my position. What can we do to make this conversation more productive?

I hope you can review this material and see potential uses for “turning around” conversations that are headed in the wrong direction. Ask yourself:

  • Can I find ways to ensure that the elements of “good conversations” are in evidence in most of my interactions with others?
  • Reflect back on a “bad conversation” you recently endured. Can you identify which of the 7 possible causes were responsible for getting it off track?
  • Are you willing to study these 7 causes and the potential responses to add to your repertoire of verbal skills to enhance your reputations as a good conversationalist?

I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

Photo Credit: Sharon Mollerus


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