global leadership perspectives

What type of conversation are you having?

This article provides a set of distinct characteristics of conversations which help us better notice and understand the wide range of conversational types that we engage in as humans, both in our personal lives and in our work lives.

Guidance for distinguishing different types of conversations

We have grown up learning to listen and talk and we sometimes believe that simply listening and talking constitutes a conversation.  This assumption often prevents us from seeing what we don’t know or understand about conversations.  We may mistakenly think that we know and understand everything we need to have conversations and that there is nothing to learn.  Consequently, we may believe we possess all the necessary conversational skills without recognizing the room for growth.

Many businesses focus on communications as the key to effectiveness.  We are often trained in communication, learning new techniques of communicating.  These sometimes help produce better results, but, too often, they, just don’t seem to stick.

Often overlooked is the existence of different conversational types.  As a result, we find ourselves or others frustrated because the conversations we are in are not taking us where we need to go.

The Distinction of ‘Conversation’

We propose that conversations serve as our primary means of engagement with the world.  Conversations go beyond speaking and listening.

Conversations include myriad ways of engaging with others – not just words, but also

  • our thoughts – particularly recurrent patterns of thinking – often referred to as ‘private conversations’ or ‘internal dialogue’,
  • in what we hold as important to take care of in our lives (concerns),
  • in our moods, our recurrent practices for living and interacting

Our conversational behavior opens and closes possibilities for how we can participate in different domains of action. For example, it is through conversations we build relationships, create learning environments, get important things done, and design possibilities for the future.       

In the workplace, all work is conversational. Organizational behavior is fundamentally conversational. The conversational behavior of leaders and managers is a vital component of the effective functioning and success of an organization.  A crucial workplace competence, therefore, especially for leaders and managers, is the ability to continually have conversations that produce value for the organization.  Each conversation has the potential to impact positively and negatively on performance and productivity.”[1]

Typology of Conversations:

This typology is a set of distinctions for identifying, understanding and using different types of conversations. Understanding and planning for the types of conversations needed is an instrumental skill. Meetings may comprise several different types of conversations, moving from one type to the next, as needed. Having everyone in the same type of conversation is essential for the efficiency and the effectiveness of the conversation and the results that flow from the conversation.

The following set of seven conversations[2] was identified by Dr. F. Flores within his innovative work on people interacting more effectively.  These seven were considered comprehensive and discrete, but no claim was made that they were necessarily the fully complete set of human conversations. Observing them over the last ten years, we find these seven to be highly useful in improving the value delivered through conversations. We have added one to Dr. Flores’ seven that we believe is distinct and worthy of consideration in its own right.

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Each type of conversation has its own elements and practices for effectively engaging in them. The conversation types we can see are (in no significant order):

  • Conversation for speculation (aka a conversation for possibilities):
    Blue sky conversations, ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking, generative in building on others’ ideas, orientating to bringing about a new future
  • Conversation for possible conversation:
    One of inquiry. Is the other person open to and genuinely interested in engaging in a conversation yet to take place?  There are aspects of political power and authority to be considered here. 
  • Conversation for action (workflow):
    • Engaging in conversations about getting things done. This is often the default orientation about discussions for many people in organizations.
    • Effectiveness here calls for diligence in all stages of work, clarity on who is customer / performer of the work, and the ability to discuss and explore concerns and conditions of satisfaction.
  • Conversation for clarity:
    • Having a mutual goal of reaching a common understanding.
    • Sharing what we see and listening for what others see
    • Holding curiosity, rather than assuming we know and patience for others who do not see our view readily
  • Conversation for relationship:
    • Grants legitimacy, builds trust, creates alignment, takes care of what matters most to the person and pays attention to who the other person is
    • Produces acknowledgement and demonstrates value of the other person
  • Conversation for appreciation and/or acknowledgement:
    • Speaking outwardly about what has been accomplished, why it’s of value or noteworthy. 
    • Authenticity is essential – if not authentic, then don’t do it.
  • Conversation for personal assessments, stories and narratives:
    The story we have constructed about what happened, why it occurred, and what it means to us. Discussing what ‘could’ and/or ‘should’ is very common. Critical is the emotional element of desire to be ‘understood’ as a human being and have someone truly ‘listen’ us. Orientation to the past while shaping our view of what’s possible in the future. May be individual or collective in a community. 
  • Conversation for the closure of work (Vanry’s Addition):
    Essential for the effective closing of work, either yours or others:
    • Produce assessments of value for your customer(s), stakeholders, colleagues and yourself
    • Assess your learning (versus value) arising from the work
    • Measure increases in the intellectual capital
    • Measure increases to financial or symbolic capital
    • Offer your appreciation to each of the other participants
    • Identify how to apply the learning and value to future workflows
    • Strengthen the trust in the relationship and grow the scope of what you can accomplish together

Practical Application

We suggest focusing on how to productively apply these types of conversations given the circumstances present and the futures we wish to open together. 

As we approach meetings or other conversations, we need to be deliberate in thinking about the type(s) of conversations required.  Many meetings involve multiple types of conversations.  As an example, problem-solving meetings may involve conversations for speculation, then conversations for clarity, followed by conversations for action.

Noticing what type of conversation is actually taking place and what type of conversation is needed allows us to redirect ourselves or others to being in the same type of conversation, consistent with what is called for at that moment.


As with any technology, applying discernment within this language technology enables us to produce increased value and reduces waste in our productivity – in our work and lives. We can become more active participants in the conversations we are in, not bystanders in the stands watching the ‘game of life’.  We affect others by what we say, and we are affected by what they say. Considering the discussion and definitions above, suggests that conversations entered deliberately with greater thought and planning as to desired outcomes and the types of conversations will produce more effective results.

  • [1] Coaching to the Human Soul, p.249, A. Sieler, 2003
  • [2] From the work of Dr. F. Flores, 1990-1992.

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