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In last week’s blog, I wrote about promoting open dialogue. As important as it is, without focus, it can also be a time suck on our days. So how much structure should we all inject into our talks to achieve the best results? What can we do to turn our conversations into project progress?

To some extent, it depends on the nature of our talks. Are we talking about conversations in formal team meetings, informal gatherings to discuss project work, phone calls, water cooler chats, or lunch conversations with people we barely know?

There is research that supports the notion that with all of the growing technologies surrounding us, social interaction is becoming increasingly important. We shouldn’t spend eight hours a day hunched over a laptop, writing out Slack-like messages as our only means of communicating with colleagues.

So, the question becomes one of how to manage this time. Time is money. We all have 24 hours in a day. To my knowledge, no one has figured out how to create time. And so, the first step is to become intentional.

That thirty minutes in the morning, simply chatting over breakfast with your spouse and/or your children, may be the most important time of your day. Don’t underestimate the need for time spent simply chatting. But understand how it factors into your goals, and the plan for your day.

In a busy world, with activities that need to be done, many of us wrestle with how to get it all done.  Here are some suggestions on how to turn your conversations into project progress.

Allow a finite amount of time for a conversation.

Using time as a constraint can actually benefit your work. Knowing that you have a limited amount of time to create a blog, find a team to execute a large change management project, clean your car, or finish your taxes can be helpful. It forces discipline, focus, and scope control. The same is true of our conversations with colleagues, other business associates, and even friends.

Using time as a constraint for conversations or meetings can actually benefit your work. Click To Tweet

You will have to determine how you go about deciding on whether a conversation deserves 15 minutes, or two hours. In general, I’d go for less time – if you are trying to create focus. But some things can’t be rushed, and building relationships, characterized by respect and trust, is one of those things.

Here are some tricks that you can try:

  • Change the default calendar appointment time to half hour, rather than an hour.
  • When others schedule time with you, ask them what their objectives are. Or, how much time you should allow, who else is included, what is on their mind, or any other question that helps you better plan.
  • When you schedule time with others, be clear about what you need.
  • When you wander around the office, perhaps as a manager, be respectful of what others might be involved in. As effective as MBWA (management by wandering around) may be, it can be frustrating for subordinates if they are working on something with a deadline, and they are interrupted by “the boss.”

Use agendas – even if they aren’t formal agendas.

Let’s say that you are meeting with two project colleagues at a coffee shop. It doesn’t feel like a true meeting – just a chance for some conversation. Is it business or personal? If you are like me, you know you need these times, but you are busy, and you don’t have much time for chatting over coffee. So, how can you get more out of these times?

Can you think ahead about something constructive that might come out of that time? A better understanding of some complex issue. A decision on something that doesn’t require the entire team, but that might need more than one perspective. Plan ahead and use that chat time wisely. I make notes to myself about all of these informal meetings, using Evernote, to try and gain the most benefit.

Plan creative talking time around your body clock.

In Daniel Pink’s book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, he discusses considerable research being done on the variances in cognitive abilities throughout the day. Most of us have a slow period from about 1 – 3 pm. Maybe the afternoon siesta was a great idea after all?

One thing he discusses is that for most of the population, mornings are better for analytical tasks, while the slow period (early afternoon) is a better time for creative and innovative tasks.

Maybe we should plan our brainstorming, creative chatting, and project planning discussions for that early afternoon timeframe, and save our mornings for that focused, head-down, analytical work?

With this in mind, perhaps we should opt for late lunches, rather than early lunches?

Structure meeting conversations.

The larger the meeting, the more structure is needed. Know in advance what the purpose of the conversation is. Are you trying to brainstorm a new idea? Are you trying to make a difficult decision? Are you simply trying to make sure that everyone is on the same page, and offer the opportunity to raise concerns?

Be aware of the cost of that meeting and make sure the outcomes justify the investment. A large meeting may be costing your organization $5000 – $25,000 dollars, or more – if you have a lot of highly paid people around the table for an extended period of time. Here are some quick suggestions for structuring larger meetings:

  • Communicate expectations, typically in a well-constructed agenda, in advance.
  • Identify and document the questions that need to be addressed.
  • If it is a working meeting, identify and document the work that must be accomplished.
  • Use time blocks. Include them on your agenda.
  • Start and stop on time.
  • Ask people to prepare in advance. Avoid conversations which simply amount to a pooling of ignorance.
  • Avoid meetings where people just sit around and discuss how things are going. You can have those conversations, if you feel it appropriate, over lunch or dinner.

Outline accomplishments and next steps at the end of the talk.

No one wants to end a conversation prematurely, or to sound like they don’t have time for someone else. And no one likes to end a meeting feeling like something important was not resolved effectively. But it’s important to end on time, and thus, if you are in charge – keep an eye on the clock, and start wrapping up the discussions in time for some closure.

Pay attention to the way you end the conversation. This is your opportunity to leave people feeling either very good or very bad. Outline any accomplishments from your time chatting. Just outlining those accomplishments and any next steps will make everyone feel better about that time investment.

Next steps are important. What is supposed to happen, and who is going to make sure it happens? Write it down. Follow up with minutes, or a thank-you email, outlining what is supposed to happen next.

If you feel like you accomplished nothing, reexamine that feeling. Did you enjoy talking with the person? Can you finish the conversation with something positive? Ideas include: It was a pleasure to chat with you today. I’m hoping we will have more times together to build this relationship, as we both know that trust takes time. OR, Thanks for spending time with me. This work is confusing for me, and it was helpful to simply brainstorm the challenges with someone else who is knowledgeable.

Don’t underestimate the power you have to make someone else feel better, or to empower them. In doing so, you might just give them a reason to value your work. As I discussed in last week’s blog, we need to build trust in our organizations. Typically, trust follows respect.  Sometimes we just need to get together and talk – to get to know one another, to understand differences of opinion, to question the status quo, to ponder a better way forward, to build relationships, respect, and trust. Sometimes, we have the opportunity to turn that conversation into project progress. So be intentional about the way you manage your talking time.

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