Future Talk

I once read that 80% of all meeting conversations in the work place are about what has already happened, even though the past cannot be changed.  What a waste!  And the alternative is very accessible.

“Future talk” is not a science fiction phenomenon.  It simply means deliberately keeping a conversation focused on the time horizon that starts now and goes forward, and not on anything that has already happened.  This is an extremely powerful tool for having productive conversations, especially when the participants hold positions of authority – such as one’s boss.  Future talk also keeps difficult conversations with clients, colleagues and staff in a safer, constructive zone and tone, when you want to tell someone something they may not want to hear in order to influence future actions.

The central goal of future talk is to keep any conversation blame-free and exploratory, and moving people toward common ground and toward attitudes and behaviors that support desired outcomes. All you have to do is phrase your statements, requests, offers and questions in the future tense, and censor out most of the statements that cannot be rephrased in future form.

Here is a recent client success story that highlights the value of pre-planning future talk for sensitive conversations:

An associate at a rapidly growing social media company knew that his salary was dramatically below those of comparable colleagues and, now, also below new hires.  He already felt under-appreciated and under-supported on other (non-financial) fronts.  A substantial raise would help him cope with the other job stresses and stay motivated.  In planning and rehearsing his raise request conversation, he chose language that emphasized making the future more equitable and positioning him to be successful and satisfied going forward.  Although he appropriately presented the data about who was recieving what salaries (“past talk,” to make his case), he consciously did not dwell on how he had been feeling about the inequity, how long it had been bothered him, who was responsible, etc.  In one conversation, my client quickly obtained a 20 percent raise effective almost immediately, and left the meeting without any relationship strain.

Future talk can advance any kind of agenda – not just the individualized type in my example.  It can help teams start functioning better (without bothering to place blame for past dysfunction — just skip that step!).  It can clarify roles, goals, obstacles and missteps with minimal friction.  It can help you get a read on a difficult boss’ intentions.  And it can help colleagues grow into greater responsibilities and broadened perspectives.

Consider whether you have an upcoming meeting where you can contribute some much needed future talk and help people wean themselves off past talk.  I’d love to hear how it goes!