Productive Conversations

Productive Conversations

What is a productive conversation?

A productive conversation is a conversation in which all members feel heard, they feel like their concerns or thoughts are validated (even if no one else agrees with them), and all members come out of it with a similar idea of the next step. It can be about something as simple as what to eat for dinner or what movie to watch, or it could be as complicated as planning a new job and buying a new home or opening up a previously monogamous relationship.

What is an unproductive conversation?

A conversation in which people feel misunderstood or dismissed. One where someone feels resentful, or doesn’t know their conversation partner’s motivations. A conversation where someone feels attacked, or ignored. Or, one where both parties have a vastly different understanding of what just happened, or what’s going to happen next.

It can take a lot of work to recover from a conversation like that. Either someone has to do some serious emotional processing (and possibly talking again) to deal with feeling misunderstood or attacked, or whatever “next step” happens takes someone wildly by surprise, and they have to deal with the consequences of that.

A productive conversation will leave all people on the same page. Again, they don’t have to agree with each other, but they need to know all of the information. You all know by now how much I love data – the more information you have, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to make the best choice.

So how can you make your conversations do more work for you?

Use the hell out of my favorite phrase: “so what I’m hearing you say is _______________, is that right?”


This gives every point, every volley, every sub-thought in a conversation some room to breath, or to be more fully formed, or to be corrected.

If someone says something to you in a conversation that is emotional or complicated, there’s a good chance that a) you’re not going to 100% understand exactly what they meant when they said it, or b) they said words, hoping you’d pick up on how they were feeling, but didn’t convey that thought very well. They may have even said something they didn’t mean, because it felt right in that moment.

You need to give your conversation partner more time to explain themself, and you need to leave them an out in case they said the wrong thing. Both of these can be accomplished by summarizing what you’ve heard already, and giving your buddy a chance to make changes.

 “So what I’m hearing you say is _______________, is that right?”

They can say “yes, that’s what I’m saying!” or they can say “um, no, that’s not quite right. Let me try again to tell you what I’m feeling or thinking or planning, but in different words.”

One condition: you *have* to give your conversation partner the chance to redact or change something they’ve already said. We say a lot of things we don’t mean, in the heat of the moment – it comes from having feelings. We want to wound, or to vent about something that doesn’t actually need to change. If you say, “is that right?” and they say, “oops, no, I want to communicate THIS: _______,” let that lie. There may be a few good reasons to force the issue (“no, I heard you say that you never wanted kids. We should come back to that.”), but usually it’s going to give you a more productive conversation if you’re both allowed to tailor your message.

It’s also a good reminder to your conversation partner that you don’t share the same brain, and that you can’t read their mind. Not everyone has great theory of mind – I have TERRIBLE theory of mind, for example – and it can be beneficial to them to hear “what I got from your words was actually something different than you meant to convey.” Oops, they’ll think. Let me try again. Let me be more careful, this time.

Some people only do that first half. “I just heard you say ______,” and immediately dive into a response to that. That’s not unfair – you’re probably having feelings about what you heard, and want to talk about your feelings. Talking about your feelings is a kind of productivity. But it doesn’t quite give another person a full opportunity to be heard. They talked, sure, and you listened, but you didn’t make sure that you understood them. It spaces out a conversation, makes it take longer, and makes sure everyone is consistently on the same page, when you say, “I heard you say this thing. Is that right? If not, can you try and rephrase it, or give more information, to make sure I understand what you want me to?”

 “So what I’m hearing you say is _______________, is that right?”

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