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Excellent communication gives product managers power, even superpowers.
Listeners have heard me share the purpose of this podcast… this is where product leaders and managers make their move to product masters, learning practical knowledge that leads to more influence and confidence so you’ll create products customers love.
Our guest is helping us with the influence part. As we must build and use influence to be effective, what we say matters. And, Daniel Stillman will tell us how to design conversations that matter. He is an industrial designer turned conversation designer. I really enjoyed our discussion and hope you do to.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[3:10] How can product managers influence others through excellent communication?
I started a podcast about what conversations are made of. I realized that if a product failed, it was because we didn’t have the right conversations about it. We can all get better at intentionally designing our conversations. Alice Walker said, “The biggest mistake people make with power is thinking they don’t have any.” As a product manager, you may not have official authority, but you can have power through what you say. It may seem risky to speak up, but we have to be willing to ask difficult questions and bend the conversation in the direction we need it to go. Be quick, brief, and clear and use your time effectively. Listen deeply to other people, because we can only respond intelligently if we connect with others deeply. Have a very clear arc of your conversation, including setting the stage for the conversation, having a meaningful exploration of the topic, and ending effectively.
[9:00] How can we design conversations to maximize meaning?
Everyone is already designing their conversations for something. To design your conversations more intentionally, step back and ask, “How am I doing it now and what am I designing it for?” I think about four quadrants that conversations can be focused on—asking vs. telling and problem vs. solution. One isn’t better than another, but you have to know which one you want to be in or get better at.
Conversations require turn-taking, one person talking and the other listening. Consider whether you’re really listening or just waiting to speak. Enjoy listening. Add silence to make your communication more interesting.
[14:45] What does it mean to actively listen?
Active listening can be a place of safety. If you’re confronted, responding with a repetition of what you think you heard is active listening. You get a moment to think, and the other person gets a chance to correct what they’ve said if you’ve misunderstood.
Global listening means not just listening for facts. There are several levels of listening. Level 0 is listening to your own head and not the other person. Level 1 is absorbing facts only. Level 2 is absorbing emotional meaning & context. Level 3 is connecting your understanding with their understanding. You have to earn your way to understanding at that deeper level by first listening to facts, then feelings, then insights, then potential. These levels of listening apply to customer interviews, when you need to both listen to the words and absorb other signals. Having one person interview and one take notes and observe can help you intentionally look for signals.
[22:06] How is a conversation arc like a story arc?
Good stories follow an arc of rising and falling action . Meetings and conversations should follow a narrative arc too. Many meetings are just a list of things. Instead, spend a brief time on the exposition, or current state. Then move to the inciting incident—the big problem you have or the change you want to create. Get excited about it. Then spend the rest of the meeting thinking about how to make the change happen. You can lead without official authority by making your meetings exciting so that people want to be there.
The arc is the easiest narrative structure—open, explore, close. But there are many other narrative structures you can use to make your meetings interesting. One of my favorites is the Four Seasons Model. Winter is resting the soil and reflecting. Spring is planting the seed. Summer is perspiration, tilling, and pruning. Autumn is celebrating the harvest.
When you’re designing a meeting, think about it as a story, and identify the one important thing you want people to leave with. The more value you provide, the more value you get.
Bonus Question: How can we design conversations in other areas of our lives?
The Rose, Thorn, Bud is a great conversational tool. When you’re talking about your day with your family, everyone shares one rose, one thorn, and one bud—something that was great, something that wasn’t great, and something developing on the horizon. You can also use pairwise ranking to make decisions. Actively listen to others in your life. I’m planning my wedding using the customer journey map, lightning talks, crazy eight, and dot voting. As product managers, we know how to use so many great tools that we can apply to the rest of our lives.
- Daniel’s book & free chapters, Good Talk: How to Design Conversations that Matter
- Daniel’s podcast, The Conversation Factory
- More resources on Daniel’s website
- The Seasons of Creative Conversations tool
- Leadership and influence require consistency
- Daniel’s mom cooking with Chuck Berry, John Lennon, and Yok Ono on the Mike Douglas show – blast from the past!
“The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.” –Bill O’Brien, former CEO of Hanover Insurance
Thank you for being an Everyday Innovator and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.