My Favorite Tool That I Struggle With

November 14, 2013


  • What tool do I use more often than any other, often while using other tools?
  • What tool am I certain can be an aid in solving almost any problem, if used properly?
  • What tool do I struggle with the most, even though I probably complain about other tools much more often?
  • What tool have I seen used by my fellow coworkers here at SEP, to defeat many epic problems over the years?
  • What tool am I sure you rely on as well, even though I may never have met you?


A huge part of my day is made up of conversations. And of course these conversations have a huge variety of participants on the other side. Clients… Coworkers… Potential hires… My wife.

While conversations are often an extremely powerful tool, there are some aspects that I know I struggle with getting better at using. And, to be honest, most of these aspects I wasn’t even aware of for many years.

Here are the top five things I’ve learned over time that can hopefully help others better use this everyday tool (and hopefully serve as a reminder to myself to keep working on them).

Know that the conversation needs to happen. Sometimes the trickiest part of conversations is knowing that they have to happen. Be aware of what is going on around you, don’t stay too focused on what is in front of you. And of course, sometimes the way that you find out that a conversation needs to happen is by having other conversations. Don’t be afraid to set yourself a reminder to talk to someone either on a recurring basis, or a certain amount of time in the future.

Choose the appropriate medium. It is so easy to say “Oh, this can just be a quick email (or text message, IM, etc.)”. But there have been so many times that the quick email has led to many more emails, confusion (on one or both sides), frustration, or hurt feelings.

So many times, I wish I’d have stopped and thought “Would it be better to pick up a phone and talk? Or is this worth arranging a face-to-face discussion?” While I think I’m getting better at that, I still find that I have to consciously pause and ask those questions (and I realize that I still don’t do that as often as I should).

Make the conversation happen. Procrastination. It is really easy to put off a conversation. Maybe the problem will just go away (right?), or maybe someone else will deal with it (right?), or maybe… No!

Generally, the longer you put it off, the more painful it will be when the conversation finally does happen. Just get it over with already.

Be explicit with your intent. If you’re approaching someone with a conversation, make sure they understand your intent going in. Sometimes, we assume that our intentions are obvious, but it can be tricky. Are you looking for general feedback, or are you really asking for critique on a specific item? Are you providing a status update to a client, or are you really trying to raise a concern about a risk that has materialized?

And while you’re making sure your intentions are understood, it also obviously helps to know what the intentions of the other participants are. (Hint: ask!)

Listen actively. Of course we all know that we should listen to the other participants in our conversations, right? Each of us has had a conversation with someone and found out later that either we didn’t actually understand what they were saying or vice versa.

A great technique that I was exposed to a few years back is Active Listening. Go ahead, click that link. It is a great way to work on ensuring that you actually hear what the other person is trying to communicate.

Wrapping up

Hopefully these thoughts will help some of you out there. Do you feel like you’ve got a tool more powerful than conversations? Let me know in the comments! Or if you’ve got ideas on other techniques to help in conversations, please share them below.