The 4 Stages of Unproductive Conversations

If you want to save at least three hours per week, stop engaging in unproductive conversations. There are as many varieties of these conversations as there are people who engage in them.

Think of petty arguments, gossip, verbal ping pong, and other forms of conversational drama. In my work with consulting clients, I have noticed four stages a leader goes through before being able to redirect an unproductive conversation into a productive conversation that is focused, aligned and gets results.

This article is about the four stages of unproductive conversations and how to leap into the fifth stage where productive conversations produce results.

Stage 1: Cluelessness

Your conversations are wasting your time, but you don’t realize it’s happening. All you know is that you feel drained at the end of the day and you didn’t accomplish your agenda. You let Demanding Dwayne derail your meeting, and Chatty Cathy caught you in the hallway for a complaint. You found yourself arguing over an irrelevant issue and you got engaged in shop gossip and missed a deadline. Your open door has been a revolving door, and you have to stay overtime to get caught up.

Important information: Pay attention to how often someone else distracts you from your agenda. Everyone has blind spots, but if you are exhausted and losing ground, it’s probably because you are engaged in too many non-productive conversations. Your best friend is a timer, and setting appropriate boundaries.

Stage 2: Mind-grind

You are aware of the distractions and the urge to get caught up in other people’s agenda. You notice, but you still find yourself participating. What’s common at this stage is another unproductive conversation: the one in your head. With awareness comes some aversion: You judge yourself. You know you should do better, but you don’t know how.

Important information: Until you take charge of the conversation in your head, you will get trapped in the mind-grind. Your ineffective head-conversations lead to poor conclusions and, ultimately, poor business results.

Stage 3: Avoidance

No one likes to initiate difficult conversations, and you are no exception. You use being “too busy” as an excuse to disengage. You avoid performance conversations because you don’t want to get derailed into someone else’s emotional mess. You agree with things you don’t agree with. You make promises you know you won’t keep.

Important Information: Avoidance is a coping mechanism intended to save time and avoid drama. However, avoidance causes even bigger problems. People will lose trust and say you are undependable — all because you aren’t willing to initiate difficult conversations.

Stage 4: Anger

There’s a ripple effect created from avoidance, and you’ve had it. You are pushed to your limit. You no longer care about being liked. Anger is your new fuel. You are blunt. You get to the point. Your new rule is radical honesty. You say what you mean, and there’s no soft-soaping.  The only problem is that you no longer like yourself, and neither does anyone else. Now others avoid you.

Important information: Anger is not truth, but it is the fuel that can get you there. You don’t need anger to speak truth; you need courage with a dose of compassion.

Stage 5: Aligned

After some soul-searching, you come to understand that productive conversations get things done. It’s through conversation that we resolve conflict, maintain business relationships and get the team rowing in the same directions. It’s through productive conversations that we negotiate and make sales. Conversations that drive results are focused on the future, what’s possible and what course-corrections are needed.

Important information: The biggest shift an executive can make is to start viewing communication as a strategy rather than a soft skill. From this new frame of reference, communication becomes less reactive and manipulative and more results-based.

Conclusion: Becoming a competent communicator is often about understanding the stages and stumbling blocks we all go through. Sometimes a good coach or mentor can make all the difference to significantly improve productivity through conversations.

Article originally published via SmartBrief.

Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of “Stop Workplace Drama” (Wiley 2011), “No-Drama Leadership” (Bibliomotion 2015) and “7 Ways to Stop Drama in Your Healthcare Practice” (Greenbranch 2018).  Download “The Bottom Line: How Executive Conversations Drive Results.” Connect with Chism via LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter and at