BOOK: The Four Conversations

Daily Communication that Gets Results

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 effectiveness of organization change. More information is available at

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


As a management professor and a management consultant, we 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, beyond all others, is “communication.” Over the last twenty-five years of teaching and consulting, we have discovered two things about the communication problem in organizations.

First, many people do not know that “communication” is actually made up of different types of conversations.

Second, many of us do not understand that our own communication, not someone else’s, 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. To learn more about your own communication strengths and weaknesses, see the Free communication assessments on our book website: there is a free 20-question assessment for individuals and also a free 56-question assessment for the communication habits of an entire workplace.

Research at the Harvard Business School indicates that 70% of all organizational changes fail to produce their intended results. Communication is usually the designated culprit in these failures. Why, then, if everyone knows communication is so important, have we not solved the problem?

Our understanding of “communication” is often weak: most of us don’t get good training in being better communicators or better listeners. We tend to see “communication problems” as being caused by other people or external factors, which has limited our vision. Each of us has our own pattern of daily conversations, but we can also learn to practice making a few changes in those patterns to start communicating more effectively.  The Four Conversations book is a helpful guide.

There are four types of normal, everyday conversation that are known to be productive, unlike gossip, blaming or complaining. Each conversation has a few necessary ingredients ( see The Four Conversations). 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.

Many of the persistent issues that people tolerate in organizations can be resolved by using these four conversations more effectively. True, some people do not want to invest time to practice applying new conversational practices in their workplace. However, most people are willing to make minor adjustments in their speaking and listening in order to gain major improvements in results and relationships.

When our students and clients practice improving their skills with one or more of the four conversations in challenging work situations, they report being amazed that even very small changes in the way they talked would produce unexpectedly positive outcomes. Practicing managers were impressed with how easy it is to get results, and quickly apply the lessons to get similar benefits outside of work, with spouses, families, and friends.

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 changes in their organizations. We have included many of their stories and experiences in the book, as well as first-hand observations, with examples of how people changed their conversations and what happened as a result. The people and the examples are real, though we have altered the names of individuals and organizations.

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 an Emeritus Professor of management 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 has retired from her career as a management consultant and is now focusing on laurie-lr-3721research and writing as well as serving as a Senior Fellow for the US Nuclear Industry Council. She holds a BA in psychology, a MS in industrial engineering, and a PhD in operations research engineering, 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 is now a Senior Fellow with the US Nuclear Industry Council.

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