THE FOUR CONVERSATIONS: Daily Communication that Gets Results

By Jeffrey Ford and Laurie Ford

Blank #5 BEST BUSINESS BOOK by Toronto’s The Globe and Mail

This book on productive communication, published in 2009 by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. is still used widely in university courses on management communication and by consulting teams working to improve the productivity of work groups and the effectiveness of organization changes and coordination between work groups. 

Talk is powerful. Engaging in the right conversation at the right time is key to both personal and organizational success. And it’s not just ‘difficult’ or ‘crucial’ conversations that matter. The Four Conversations is a book that clearly demonstrates the everyday dialogues needed for successful, satisfying, and productive relationships. In this book you will:

  • Learn to get maximum results from four types of everyday conversations,
  • Discover how even small changes in the way you talk can produce extraordinarily positive outcomes, and
  • Explore ways to put these four conversations into practice using sample dialogues and personal stories.

Armed with a solid body of research, plus their own first-hand observations, Jeffrey and Laurie Ford describe the four conversations that each of us can use to get things done: Initiative Conversations that introduce something new; Understanding Conversations that engage people in new ideas or processes; Performance Conversations that support commitment for taking specific actions and producing specific results; and Closure Conversations that complete the past and create a sense of accomplishment for yourself and others. Learn about the specific ingredients that make each of these conversations useful and effective — and see how the conversations can be put together in different ways to achieve different objectives.

The Four Conversations demonstrates how to use the right conversation at the right time and to plan and speak each one well, to improve the productivity we need while strengthening the value and connection that people want and deserve. Through dozens of personal stories and sample dialogues, the authors illustrate how real people in real situations have used these four conversations to effectively address common workplace problems and lay the foundations for enduring success: better relationships, stronger engagement in reaching goals, and an authentic sense of personal and professional achievement for everyone.

FREE Communication Assessments – See Where YOU Stand with the Four Conversations

The (free) Personal Communication Assessment contains 20 questions that let you see how proficient you are at making all of your conversations work. After you submit your answers to those 20 questions, you will receive information telling you which conversations you are best at having and which ones you could benefit from by practicing and strengthening them – and how to go about doing that.

The (free) Group Communication Assessment has 56 statements describing a range of situations that are very likely to compromise a group’s effectiveness. It takes less than 10 minutes to identify which of 8 different kinds of issues you observe most frequently in your workplace. After you submit your responses to each situation, you will receive feedback on how to deal with the issues that you see most often:

  • Lateness – People are waiting for work results or for people to show up
  • Poor work quality – Work is incomplete, inaccurate, or not well done
  • Difficult people – Some people are consistently challenging to work with
  • Lack of teamwork – People are not helping each other or collaborating
  • Poor planning and workload overwhelm – There is too much work and/or too little time to do it,
  • Insufficient resources and support – People don’t have the training or resources needed to do the work properly
  • Lack of accountability – People don’t “own” their jobs and its requirements
  • Incomplete conversations – Problems and projects linger without resolution

You will receive your score on either Communication Assessment you choose to fill out, and when you click on “submit”, you will receive your results.

What are the Four Conversations?

Realizing your goals takes more than passion, vision, and commitment: it takes talking to other people. To be successful, your talking must go beyond the rules of well-mannered communication skills.

There are four types of normal, everyday conversation known to be productive. The three non-productive conversations – gossip, blaming or complaining – you probably are already familiar with. But every productive conversation has a few necessary ingredients (see the underlined and CAPITALIZED elements below). They are reliably used by many CEO’s, executives, directors, managers, supervisors, and employees (and, according to our MBA students, also by husbands and wives, parents and children) in the process of doing their respective jobs. Anyone who wants to accomplish something, whether creating a new corporate strategy, assigning people to projects, or arranging lunch with friends, can benefit by using one or more of these four conversations.

Initiative Conversations: Whenever you propose something new or different, such as introducing a new goal, proposing an idea, or launching some kind of change, you are initiating something. Effective “Initiative Conversations” will specify WHAT you want to accomplish, WHEN you want to accomplish it, and WHY it matters.

Understanding Conversations: The most important aspect of “Understanding Conversations” is that they are two-way dialogues. When you want people to understand something, such as an idea, instruction, or goal, you need to listen to what they have to say about what you are asking or proposing, and how they might implement it in their day-to-day work. A dialogue includes 2-way explanations, questions and yes-but’s. The point is to get a clear view of HOW to make something happen, including any changes or updates that could be needed as things progress. These conversations also clarify WHO will work to accomplish each of the various actions and tasks required. The dialogue is made effective by all participants having an opportunity to provide useful feedback on the specifics of the intended results and required actions, and looking to see WHERE any new resources are needed and WHERE any results or communications will be delivered.

Performance Conversations: If, in the name of improving productivity, you want people to take actions and/or to produce certain results, you will want to master “Performance Conversations”. These are the conversations that include specific requests and promises that clarify whatever actions, results, and other requirements are needed for success. Specifications and standards often include timing and schedules, quality and quantity, and by WHEN, WHO will see those specifications are met, and WHO will receive the results.  “Performance Conversations” are essentially agreements to make something happen on time and to specifications. The key formula here is Requests + Promises = AGREEMENTS. These agreements are the foundation for performance accountability.

Closure Conversations: Whenever you report on the status of a project, follow up on someone’s request or promise, or declare a job to be complete, you are having a “Closure Conversation”. These conversations complete the past by updating the status or closing out some piece of business, and they create the space to look at what is next. Closure also builds credibility and accountability and recognizes the participation and contribution of everyone involved.

You probably use one or more of these four conversations whenever you communicate. You can be more successful and effective, at work and in life, by improving your skills with each type of conversation, and bring more trust, productivity, and accountability into any workplace. To learn more about your own communication strengths and weaknesses, see the Free Communication Assessments (see above) where you can learn your individual score on “The Four Conversations” and also find out about your view on the communication habits of an entire workplace.

Each recommended change in in your communication practices will be simple for you to practice and will help you communicate more effectively. “THE FOUR CONVERSATIONS” book is a helpful guide to turn your communication challenges into more accomplishments and better teamwork.


As a management professor and a management consultant, Jeffrey and Laurie Ford have had the opportunity to work, train, and problem-solve with executives and managers in nearly every type of organization, from small businesses and Fortune 100 companies to nonprofits, associations, and government agencies at the city, state, and federal levels. The most frequently cited challenge in those situations is “communication”. We discovered two things about communication problems in organizations:

First, many people do not know that “productive communication” is actually made up of different types of conversations with distinct purposes and specific ingredients (see the Table of Contents, below).

Second, many of us do not understand that it is often our own communication, not someone else’s, that is the key to recognizing and resolving any communication problem. It is useful to consider how to use the appropriate conversations and to use them properly.

Many of the persistent issues that people tolerate in organizations can be resolved by using four productive conversations more effectively. Applying new conversational practices, whether in your workplace or your personal life, does take time and attention, but practicing the minor adjustments in speaking and listening will provide better results and relationships – as well as higher productivity and effectiveness.

The material developed in this book reflects what we learned from research and experienced in training executives and managers in MBA and executive education classes, and consulting to solve problems, improve performance or make desired changes in organizations. We have included many stories and experiences of executives, managers and employees, as well as those of MBA students, in this book. We also included examples of how people changed their conversations and what happened as a result. The people and the examples are real, though we altered the names of individuals and organizations.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1—Four Conversations in a Successful Workplace

  • Some Conversations Slow Things Down, Others Speed Things Up

Chapter 2—Initiative Conversations: Create a Future

  • Choose Your Initiative Statement: What-When-Why
  • Prepare for Your Initiative Conversation: Who-Where-How
  • Launch Your Initiative Conversation
  • What Happens If You Are Missing Initiative Conversations
  • Putting It into Practice

Chapter 3—Understanding Conversations: Include and Engage

  • Help People Find a Positive Meaning in Your Message
  • Expand and Deepen Participation
  • The Limits of Understanding
  • What Happens If You Are Missing Understanding Conversations
  • Putting It into Practice

Chapter 4—Performance Conversations: Request + Promise = Agreement

  • Commit to Performance: What-When-Why
  • Ask Others to Commit
  • Promises Create Agreements: Who-Where-How
  • Manage the Agreement
  • What Happens If You Are Missing Performance Conversations
  • Putting It into Practice

Chapter 5—Closure Conversations: Create Accomplishment & Completion

  • An Incomplete Past Can Prevent a New Future
  • The Four A’s of Closure Conversations
  • Build Accountability and Resolve “People Problems”
  • What Happens If You Are Missing Closure Conversations
  • Putting It into Practice

Chapter 6—Using the Four Conversations 

  • Your Conversational Tendencies
  • How the Four Conversations Work Together
  • Putting It into Practice

Chapter 7—Support the Conversational Workplace

  • Practices to Support the Conversational Workplace: Four Tips 

About the Authors

Jeffrey and Laurie Ford are, literally and figuratively, a marriage of theory and practice. Together, they have coauthored many articles for academic and professional management journals including Harvard Business Review and Organizational Dynamics.

Jeffrey is retired from being a management professor with the Max M. Fisher College of jeffreyBusiness at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. He holds a BS in marketing from the University of Maryland, and an MBA and PhD in organizational behavior from The Ohio State University. Prior to joining Fisher, Jeffrey served on the faculties of the Institute of Management and Labor Research at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey; and the Kelly School of Business at Indiana University.

Laurie is also retired from her career as a management consultant and is now focusing on laurie-lr-3721research and writing. She holds a BA in psychology, a MS in industrial engineering and a PhD in operations research engineering, all from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Laurie was a consultant with Arthur Young in Washington DC, then, in her own practice, served as a consultant to scores of businesses, government agencies, and not-for-profit organizations, including Intel, Mead Paper, US Department of Energy, NASA, the Ohio State Medical Association, and the Ohio Hospital Association. She has also worked with the (nuclear) Waste Management Symposia and with the US Nuclear Industry Council, focusing on nuclear waste management.

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