How to Control A Conversation
by Alan Weiss
In our business, language is everything. Language controls discussions, discussions control relationships, and relationships control business.
Too many consultants (and professional services providers) engage in conversations without any goal or objective, as if merely “chatting up” someone will lead to business. That’s like sailing out into the ocean with no destination and without navigational aids, and expecting to find a wonderful port by sundown.
Most likely, you’ll either wind up where you started if you’re lucky, or drown if you’re not. Here are some guidelines I’ve distilled from several of my books:
- Clarify for yourself what your minimum and maximum objectives are for the conversation (I call this “min/max”). A minimum objective might be to solidify the relationship, and a maximum objective might be to gain conceptual agreement leading to a proposal. If you don’t know your own expectations, you can’t calibrate your progress or success.
- Always steer toward your goal. Don’t let a prospect ramble or change the destination. You can politely redirect the conversation by saying, “Excuse me, but I wanted to verify: I think you’re most concerned about retention of talent, is that right?” Or: “If I may interrupt you, you’ve given me so much information that I need to summarize in my own words so that you can tell me if I’m understanding you accurately.” Don’t sit there like a lump listening to the history of the world.
- Look for signs of trust, e.g., revelation of useful information you hadn’t asked about, humor, respect for time frames and uninterrupted meetings, acceptance of “pushback,” requests for your advice, and so forth.
- Honor time frames. Ten minute before the scheduled end of the meeting, begin to summarize and identify next steps with DEFINITIVE times and dates. (Only extend the time if the buyer invites you to do so, another sign of interest and trust. Don’t schedule another meeting or travel arrangements too close to the end of a meeting.)
- Listen more than talk, which is achieved by asking provocative questions and being “in the moment.” Listen for which of your strengths (“baskets”) the prospect most mentions. Don’t be afraid to create a new “basket” if there’s a strong need for something you’re sure you can learn, acquire, and provide.
Assess your progress when you leave. Did you exceed the minimum objective? (If you always exceed your maximum objective, it’s not strong enough.) Know your destination, observe the navigational aids, and use a power boat, not one subject to the winds and tides of your current location.
© Alan Weiss 2012. All rights reserved.