14. The fifth phase: Precision

As you move along in your conversation, you will sometimes find the need to clarify what your guest is saying. Likewise, sometimes you will need to check if you understand what they mean. 

One of the critical elements of my approach is hunting for keywords. I keep paper and pen nearby to write some of them down.

Keywords come up when you ask the famous ”How” question. How did you do that? How did you solve that? How did you make this work?

Most of the time you will likely get abstract types of answers, with words or phrases like:















Getting information


When we hear these words, we usually nod and agree. Sounds good! But, no, it is not good because you have no idea what those words or phrases actually mean.

Do you have a friend who plays golf and has gotten better recently? Ask your friend how they’ve done it, and that probably will say, ”more practice.” Or, ”I took some lessons.” Nice, but that is not valuable information. Of course, one needs to practice, but if you wish to learn from your friend you need to know how they practice, what exercises they do, how often they practice, if alone or with a coach or knowledgeable friends, and what they practice most often and which specific things they have done they think have led to the improvement. The worst thing they can tell you is, ”Well, practice makes perfect, you see.” 

In fact, practice does not make perfect. Only ”perfect” practice makes perfect, and to perfect the practice, you need to know the details.

That is why the ”how” question can be so valuable to you in your conversations. You want the details. 

How exactly do they plan? How exactly do they coral their passion? How exactly do they make hard decisions? How exactly do they show empathy? How exactly to get the correct information? How exactly do they maintain their focus? How exactly did they make that sale or build their company? How exactly did they learn that skill?

You go to a lecture or concert to see a particular person perform, and you come home and tell others that this person really has ”it” – charisma. Then, you think to yourself that you’d like to have more charisma when making presentations at work. To get to the next step, you will need to define the behaviors that compose charisma. Here are some:

–       Standing center stage

–       Standing near your audience without chairs or tables between you

–       Stepping forward, not backward

–       Using frozen gestures (pausing a gesture to emphasize)

–       Variation of your voice to make you more attractive to listen to

–       Holding a notepad or pen may give you more authority

–       Having a visual in the background that lets the group know you have a plan

–       Moving with decisiveness and directness

The list could be much longer. The point is, again, is that the secret is in the details. The point also is that these are all things you can learn. 

So as you progress as a Talkshow host, conversationalist, coach, boss, colleague, mentor, parent, or mate, look for the details that seem to make a difference.

All the details? Well, no. Your audience probably doesn’t want to hear a ten-minute detailed description of how your guest practiced their bunker shots if your audience is not a bunch of wanna-be professional golfers. Your audience will be interested in the thought process going into a special shot your guest made at a tournament that turned out well despite a tough challenge. Why? Because the thought process of making difficult decisions under stress is a lot more interesting than the angle of the club as it hits the ball in the sand, even though that, of course, is important in the end if you are a golfer. Everyone, however, will have an interest in thought processes to succeed in a stressful situation.

This is called moving up to a higher metalevel. An orange has pits, skin, juice, and vitamins. That’s part of what makes an orange, but it also represents health, citrus fruit, or countries where oranges are grown – examples of a higher meta-level or hierarchy. Good conversationalists move between the macro (higher meta-level) and the micro, the level of details. Only ”up” and the conversation is too abstract and, in the end, often becomes tedious. Too ”low,” and the conversation consists only of minute details with no higher message or thought and thus also becomes boring. When you admire good interviewers, you will notice how they move up and down on different levels, making for a much more engaging interview.

By the way, when you read a novel that you think exhibits high-quality writing, notice that the author usually keeps a good balance between the story (the details and descriptions of people, places, and events) and the meaning (the bigger values themes). 

When you end the interview or talk and do a quick summary, you mention both levels – the higher message and an interesting detail or a specific coming action.

Now we come to the concept of precision, which means helping your guest clarify the next step. Here’s a sports metaphor you may like (or not)…

The soccer team you coach is down 2-1 at halftime. Your job as a coach is to do three things during the halftime break: 1. Improve attitudes and psychological states of mind (encourage, inspire) 2. Change the physiological state of the team – too tense; they won’t be able to perform at peak level, and too relaxed won’t help either. Every sport has its maximum physiological level of tension (compare weight lifters who need a high tension level to swimmers who with too much muscle tension will have a hard time finding their rhythm). 3. Give specific examples of behavior change or tactical changes so that each player knows exactly how to perform better in certain situations.

A pep talk (or bawling out) does not suffice. Playing intense music or drinking a bottle of Gatorade alone will not work. To give ”how-to” information is not enough either. It’s the combination of all three: Psychology, Physiology, and Methodology that has the best chance of leading to a positive change. 

It is pleasant to have a good conversation, but if one of your purposes is to help your guest find the next step towards success, change, or growth, you need to move towards a clear idea of the ”method” for their next step. The problem is that the more specific you get, the easier it is to resist. If you clearly identify the next step, your guest or conversational partner may feel threatened. ”Yikes, I have to do something.” Or they may say that they have tried that and it failed, or it wouldn’t fit their lifestyle or that their colleagues or family members wouldn’t let them do it. Being specific can lead to resistance, and your guest will want to get back to their generalizations or analysis without the pressure of actually doing something. 

What does work is identifying something so specific and easy that it can be accomplished or tested within the next 48 hours.

The mistake that is often made is trying too hard to ”change” the other person – their personality, values, habits, behavior, and motivation. I understand you may want that to happen. I am just saying that that usually backfires. Moving your guest or conversational partner forward is done by identifying something so specific, easy, and simple that they will have difficulty avoiding doing it. The most significant benefit is that something specific is much easier to follow up.

The famous motivational speaker Zig Ziglar sums it up with his declaration: ”Don’t become a wandering generality. Be a meaningful specific.”

Some examples:

Ask who. Your guest, colleague, mentee, or other conversational partner is talking about an issue they are having with other people and talks in generality by saying something like, ”I just can’t get through to them. They don’t understand.” You can nod your head to show understanding. After that, ask them to choose one of the people in the group that they would like to get through to. Many will respond by saying it’s several people or the whole group. You do not accept that as a reply; ask them, again, to be specific. – You don’t have to say aloud who it is, but I need you to think of just one of these people you would like to be able to get to ”understand” you.

After a bit of resistance, most people will come up with that one person they can begin with. This makes the rest of the conversation that much easier – because now you have a specific person to think about. What would be a good question to start a conversation with this person? How would you formulate your question, and what body language do you need to think about? With prodding, your guest will identify a highly specific behavior with a specific person. Finally, your guest has something specific to do, and you have something to specifically to follow up.

Ask how. You have asked your guest to describe a recent success. Small successes are just as interesting to listen to as enormous successes. Say they describe a work project that turned out well. Among other things, they tell you that they got their supervisor to buy into the project and give his or her support. Try then to identify what, specifically, your guest did to get the supervisor to provide support. How did you do it? The how the how question is great, but that doesn’t mean it is simple to reply. It requires a reflective search after the specifics, and many times that will be hard to identify. Prod and ask until you can clearly identify at least one specific behavior that helped. 

You have then identified one or more key behaviors that will also help in coming challenges or similar circumstances. 

Bridge to the future. Bridging to the future is asking your guest to identify a new situation in which those behavior skills and actions that worked could be beneficial. For instance, there may be another person they wish to influence or cooperate with or work out a difference with. The idea is to use what worked in the past to something that will happen in the future. That’s when applied learning takes place. A goal of your conversation is to move your guest forward. You are giving them faith in themselves and hope for future challenges. 

Ask when. Your guest has identified a specific event or challenge, how they succeeded in the past, whom they want to influence and how they can use what they have learned in a future dilemma. Ask the when question. ”You know who. You know what to say. You know how you are going to say it. Now, when will you meet this person?” Pin down a date and a time. Feed it back: ”So you are going to meet X on Tuesday at 10 AM and ask her Y with a softer voice and outstretched hands, palms up?”

Keywords. One more piece of advice here: Constantly hunt for keywords that, if possible, you write down. As mentioned before, keywords will often be abstract generalizations but serve as a stepping stone. Here you have something to dig into, to identify in behavioral terms, and thus move towards more specificity.

Summarize. Summarize what you are hearing and what decisions are being made at several points in your conversation. You want to know if you understand, and when getting an affirmation from your guest, this will let you know you are on the right path. Summarize yourself at the end, or ask your guest to summarize.

Watch the video example with Tavish

Tavish is also one of these students that knows how to get from A to B. I admire his clarity, and my job is simply to summarize keywords, key characteristics, and key methods that help him on his way in school and life. I am always amazed at how well students can actually articulate their learning process. Everyone, however, needs to feel affirmed for their efforts, and that is one of the major purposes of this empowerment conversation.