I often talk to my clients about how important it is to have conversations to avoid conversational debt. But it is also important to have discussions in a way that pushes things forward. Think about your last team meeting where people talked for an hour but the conversation did not go anywhere, or it went in circles.
In this article, I will talk about how you can use the four parts of speech to make your conversations more focused. This conversation model was described by Bill Torbert in his book Action Inquiry: The Secret of Timely and Transforming Leadership.
The goal of using the four parts of speech is to help you see what may be missing in a conversation you are having with someone or to help structure your ideas better when expressing yourself. There are many benefits of using this approach.
As an individual, it can be useful to notice and understand your own pattern of speech. How do you express yourself? Is it clear for other people? What is missing? From the perspective of a team, it can also help you listen and communicate with each other better when you are working through a problem.
To be clear, I do not advocate strictly following this model in every conversation that you have. What I am saying is that you can use this model to better support your conversations.
Let's go over the four parts of speech and then talk about how you can use them to bring more clarity to your discussions.
Framing is about giving the context that surrounds what you are saying. When we have a conversation, we assume a lot of things. In the back of our mind, we take certain things for granted. We do not always express where our viewpoint is coming from.
Because of this, we can find ourselves in the situation where the other person is assuming something and we are assuming something else. Both people are seeing the same thing from a different perspective. It creates a clash in the discussion but you do not know why. This is typically because part of the frame is missing.
Start expressing your assumptions and better framing your thought process. It will help you reach a shared understanding faster.
The second part is about making your point of view known. It is about taking a position, making a proposal or putting your stake in the ground.
For example, this could sound something like this:
When you take a clear position, it makes it easier for people to figure out what you are trying to say. They can better understand where you are going with this, without having to guess what you actually have in the back of your mind.
Once you have framed the context and you have taken your position, the next thing you can do is to give an example to illustrate.
This can be a concrete example from something you have gone through in the past or a similar situation that you went through together as a team. The solution may apply or not to your present circumstance. But the goal here is to give people a relevant case or situation they can relate to.
This part is about keeping the conversation going. After you have expressed the framing and the position and given an example, where do you want the conversation to go next?
The inquiry is an invitation to someone else to bounce back on what you just said and continue the conversation. It can be asking what they think about your proposal, if they think something is missing, etc.
The important thing is to ask an open question to keep the discussion going. You do not want a yes or no answer that could bring the conversation to a standstill.
As a team, you can take time to practice talking to each other using this model. Concretely, take 15 minutes together and pick a topic that is not related to business. This could be sports, family, a newsworthy event or any basic topic that everyone can easily talk about.
Then try to recognize the frame, the position, the illustration and the question. Try to notice the order. You will see that people will use it in different ways.
Some people will illustrate before framing, but you will not know what position they are taking. Others will drop their idea but will not ask a question, so no one knows where to go with it.
Listen to how people are expressing themselves and see if they are leaving one of the parts out. If so, you can circle back and ask them to clarify the missing piece. For example:
To go deeper into this topic, check out our article on the four obstacles that hinder conversations and learn about the conflict resolution model that can help.
The key here is to practice having conversations in this way. It is not about following the model perfectly every time. But as you use it more and more, you will see that it can help you become a better communicator.
You want to learn how to listen for the four parts of speech and understand when some parts are missing so that you can help the conversation be more productive. This is a useful tool to support people when having conversations either individually or as a team.
Practicing this can also help your team members be more structured when talking through things together. Using the four parts of speech can help make conversations clearer instead of spinning around in circles.
When people commit to it, solving problems becomes easier... and your team meetings will never be the same again!
Which parts of speech are more of a challenge for you? Which are you leaving out? How could you change this to make your discussions more clear and productive?