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ATD Blog

Conversation Is the Relationship


Tue Aug 15 2017

Conversation Is the Relationship-8d1f47f9ff2e8763dd8ae87be970bc57ecb9f27ee54a7d69f0556fe0bed6aea8

Years ago, I heard Yorkshire-born poet and author David Whyte speak at a conference. David spoke of the newly married, young man who is often frustrated (and even a little irritated) that his lovely spouse, to whom he has pledged his troth and with whom he hopes to spend the rest of his life, wants to talk (yet again) about the same thing they just talked about last weekend. What’s the topic? The quality of their relationship.

The man wonders, “Why are we talking about this again? I thought this was settled. Could we just have one huge conversation about our relationship and then coast for a year or two?” Apparently not.


Around age 42, if he’s been paying attention, David suggested, it dawns on him: “This ongoing conversation I have been having with my wife is not about the relationship. The conversation is the relationship.” 

Conversation = Relationship 

To say that this landed with me would be an understatement. The idea was simple, even obvious, but I had missed the formula. As the idea dropped, though, my internal kaleidoscope shifted.

If you recognize that there may be something to this, that the conversation is the relationship, then you also know that if the conversation stops, all of the possibilities for the relationship become smaller. What’s more, the possibilities for the individuals in the relationship become smaller, until one day we overhear ourselves in midsentence engaged in yet another three-minute conversation so empty of meaning it crackles.

It isn’t hard to imagine that when hard issues arise, many of us stop having the conversation—and relationships deteriorate. This happens often for those working in government. When we do have something tough to talk about, we’re so uncomfortable with the whole notion of confrontation that we deal with it in two ways:

  1. We build up a head of steam, burst through the door, hurl our words across the table, and then bolt. 

  2. We soften our message to the point that the other person leaves the conversation thinking we’ve just had a lovely chat.

When we hurl and bolt, we damage the relationship. When we soften and protect, the message is lost and it’s unlikely anything will change and only one person is aware that the relationship is deteriorating. When the conversation is the relationship, both of these options fail us.


Delivering a difficult message clearly, cleanly, and succinctly is essential to our relationships. In organizations where leaders have developed the courage and skills required to stay current and to communicate honestly with co-workers regarding behavior issues, there is far less stress and there are considerably fewer concerns about lawsuits. There are better and more productive relationships.

But learning how to confront productively is something that most of us must be taught. Managers who are unable to do this successfully breed employees who are ineffective (at best) and incapable (at worst). When it comes to performance management, being able to discuss and confront the issues at hand is especially critical. You’ll never get the relationship you want with an employee without addressing the issues. In turn, that employee will never get the relationship they want, along with a chance to grow and improve, without honest guidance.

Here are some simple steps to move toward mastery that are easy to undertake:

  • Change Your Context. Shift your thinking from the negative to acknowledging and accepting what confrontation really is—to confront is to engage with someone in front of an issue. Picture yourself side-by-side with someone as you examine an issue together. This shift in context is powerful in bettering your approach to this conversation, and the confrontations you have will be more successful as a result. You want something to get better, and chances are so does the someone you are speaking with. Working together to solve the issue at hand will benefit everyone in the long run, even if it’s initially difficult.

  • Prepare for the Conversation. With confrontation, preparation is key. While you may have things prepped for a formal performance management, there are things you may want to address during a more routine one-on-one that can’t—and should not—wait until that scheduled formal feedback session. When the person you are confronting realizes what is happening, they will (naturally) turn inside, briefly panic, or momentarily leave their body. Therefore, your thoughtfulness in the words you choose, the tone you strike, the examples you use, and your clarity about the situation is paramount. This is not the time to “wing it.”

  • Get to the Point. If you need to confront someone’s behavior, come straight at the issue. Say what you have to say in a 60-second opening statement, then immediately extend an invitation to your partner to respond. You may think 60 seconds isn’t enough time to express all the angst that’s been building up, to tell the detailed story you’ve gone over in your head, to unleash the emotional diatribe you’ve rehearsed in your mind. But how powerful it is when your opening statement has been prepared and delivered with skill and grace. The invitation to your partner to participate wholeheartedly and thoughtfully in the conversation will be compelling.

  • Practice, Practice, Practice. Once you have a solid opening statement, practice delivering it to another person—someone you trust and who has your best interests in mind. Reading it to yourself versus saying it aloud are two wildly different animals. You may be surprised at how much emotion leaks into your voice (and your face!) when you share your statement verbally. Saying it a few times will allow you to work through those emotions, so that you can deliver your message clearly and without an emotional load. With time, this will get easier, and delivering these messages will become second nature. But as you are mastering these skills, practice is critical to sending a clear message.

Don’t put off your conversations. You must tackle your toughest challenge today. Remember: The conversation is the relationship, and not having it is just as damaging as doing it wrong. But if done with skill, it’s highly likely that the relationship will be enriched in the process.

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