by Steve Adubato, PhD

A lot of people think of conversations as nothing more than small talk. When we hear the word "conversation," we think informal or impromptu--nothing particularly focused or goal-oriented. A lot of conversations, particularly with friends and acquaintances, may be just that--shooting the breeze, if you will. But in the case of leaders who are under tremendous pressure to bring people together to solve difficult problems and make tough choices, conversations are anything but light.

In his book, "Powerful Conversations: How High Impact Leaders Communicate," Phil Harkins, one of the nations leading organization consultants, takes on this issue. Be it in the hallway, in the workplace, on the telephone or in a face-to-face meeting, Harkins argues that the really great leaders are very purposeful in their conversations.

But it isn't just one-on-one conversations that are important. It's a conversation a leader has with his employees announcing that budget cuts must be made or that layoffs are inevitable. Regardless of the setting the key, according to Harkins, is to have conversations that move toward a clear outcome. The problem with most of our conversations is that they go in circles and people walk away with very different interpretations of what just happened. While you can't control the actions or behavior of the other person in the conversation, you CAN be a lot better prepared to effectively converse.

To that end, consider the following tools and tips that will increase the odds that your next business-related conversation will produce the results you seek.

Know who you are conversing with. Get a sense of what his or her agenda is and how he or she views you and the conversation. Be aware of any preconceived fears or needs they have. In short, know your audience.
Know yourself. Work to understand why you are in this conversation and what exactly you want to accomplish. If you are unclear as to the outcome you seek, you are likely to have a conversation that goes nowhere. Don't go into a meaningful conversation without your own agenda. Sometimes people criticize those who "have an agenda." That's a mistake. The greater danger is conversing with someone who has no agenda or who hides their agenda.
Knowing what you want to accomplish is one thing, but that doesn't mean you can't be open to alternative outcomes. The key is to be a good listener in a conversation. Good conversationalists (as well as good leaders) understand that there must be a healthy balance between talking and listening.
Build some momentum in the conversation. If there are several items on your agenda, attempt to get the easy ones resolved up front. This will build a degree of trust and a sense that success is possible. Find the common ground. This will make it easier when you get to the more difficult or challenging agenda items.
Be firm but be fair in your conversation. State your opinion or belief, but don't draw a line in the sand unless it is a matter of professional life or death. Most issues or questions in the world of business aren't life or death, and the problem arises when we make them so. Simply put, pick your spots.
Finally, be prepared to scrap your agenda and whatever list you brought into a conversation if the need arises. Sometimes, people will surprise you with what they say or don't say. Great conversationalists are open to those surprises and are prepared to adapt.
Bottom line? Conversations in the world of work should be taken very seriously if you are to reach your potential as a leader. But remember, taking a conversation seriously isn't the same as taking yourself seriously.