red tulips | copyright Jill J. Jensen

 

 

Powerful Conversations: How High Impact Leaders Communicate

Phil Harkins
New York: McGraw-Hill ©1999

 

What? Another book on communication? Yes, another one. Since none of us can accomplish much without using some form of communication, every book that exists on this ubiquitous subject could probably be valuable to someone. But some books are more useful than others, and Phil Harkins' Powerful Conversations is one of the better ones.

If you've read any of Deborah Tannen's work in linguistics and conversational style or Kegan and Lahey's book about how the way we talk affects our work, you know something about the impact of communication on personal and professional interactions. Harkins writes in the Kegan and Lahey mode: he's created a "technology" that describes three stages of what he terms powerful conversations and offers specific steps — which can be learned by anyone — to improve communication. Harkins also makes the excellent point that we actually do need to learn communication skills; we're not born knowing how to make the most of all our interactions. In addition, Harkins intends this book for those who would be leaders, because communication of all sorts is critical to leadership success — and all leaders spend a lot of time talking.

In the foreword, business guru and USC professor Warren Bennis comments on his own experience with leadership and communication, recognizing that "great leaders speak in ways that express authenticity. They do so with a candor and clarity that allows those around them to feel their presence — to know more about not only what they want, but who they are and what they stand for. Great leaders are very clear about what they are aiming for, but they also make sure that they satisfy your agenda first. Ultimately, they achieve what they want by drawing out the greatness of those around them. They do this through the power of their conversations."

Harkins' book is a practical one. Not only does he share engaging stories and relevant examples, he includes diagrams, tools, processes, and methods you can put to use right away. In fact, whenever a conversation of any sort — a meeting, a speech, or a one-on-one interaction — is on your agenda, this book can help you think it through ahead of time, which is a recommended practice for everyone, leader or not.

The process itself seems simple enough and on-going: Powerful Conversations start "with an interaction between two or more people that expresses shared feelings and beliefs, progresses to an exchange of wants and needs, and closes with clear action steps and mutual commitments. Powerful Conversations advance an agenda, with all involved becoming connected to the message and the outcome. And, when action steps are lived up to, trust is fostered, bringing relationships to higher levels in preparation for the next Powerful Conversation. Powerful Conversations multiply and build a platform for smoother, quicker lines of communication. When many leaders in the same organization are engaging in Powerful Conversations, a 'fast company' is the outcome."

In this era when consumer and client needs have all but disappeared from the radar screen of most companies while business writers (The Myth of Excellence; The Support Economy) remind us that authentic relationships with our customers will drive our business success, we obviously need a lot of help in changing our approach to organizational communication. Powerful Conversations offers "tools, measurements, examples, and templates you can use to deepen your knowledge and practice...." Part I defines Powerful Conversations, identifying their structure, impact, objectives, and outputs. Part II emphasizes their practice and shows how leaders use Powerful Conversations to "foster trust, drive change, retain great people, and articulate their own special voice of leadership." In the Appendix, you'll find all the checklists, assessments, and other tools that will help you create and benefit from your own Powerful Conversations.

 

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