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You first — How to have a 20/80 Conversation

January 24, 2024
7 min read
“It’s just me, myself and I.”
— De La Soul

It was spring, 1989. De La Soul’s hit single “Me, Myself and I” was atop the Billboard R&B chart. 

I was one of the younger members of the PMHS Varsity Tennis Team (Go Pelicans!), and  had just won a thrilling match……in my mind, at least. I ran over to an older teammate, and could not contain my excitement. 

I extolled my grit and “never give up” attitude as I was down big and had just won in a 3rd set tiebreaker! Rather than sharing in my elation, my teammate stood up, walked away and muttered: “tell me more about how great you are.” 

I sat perplexed on the bench with just me, myself, and I. 

We are our own favorite subject

While my younger self can be forgiven for my self-aggrandizement, it is a common trap.. 

But, it’s not our fault. 

It’s how we are wired. According to Scientific American, we spend 60 percent of our conversations talking about ourselves (80 percent when we’re on social media). Neurological studies show that our bodies release dopamine when we do. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a young kid sharing your tennis triumph or a business leader describing your vision or strategy.

As my partner Gavin McMahon says “we know too much and are too passionate about it.”

The problem is this: those same neurological studies show that your audience becomes disengaged when you focus on yourself, your views, your strategy, etc. It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to understand that if you flip the script, and make the conversation about them, engagement increases and they are the ones producing feel good chemicals. 

In her recently released 2nd book, The Leadership Conversation fassforward Chair Rose Fass states that “Leadership is a privilege.” True leadership is about people who work with you, and not for you. 

As leaders our default is to have 80/20 conversations in which we drive 80% of the conversation, and others get 20% of the airtime.  

Using leadership tools that fassforward has refined over the past 22 years, I created the simple concept of 20/80 conversations to show our clients how to have more effective leadership conversations. 

How to have a 20/80 Conversation

#1 Think about how other people think

Our belief is that it’s imperative to understand how you think, so that you can understand how others think. 

We define the 4 elements of your thinking pattern as Courage (think Vladamir Zolenskyy), Ethics (think Mother Theresa), Vision (think Martin Luther King Jr.), and Reality (think Ruth Bader Ginsberg). 

If you are a courage-based leader, but are talking to someone who is an ethics-based thinker, avoid your impulse to talk about taking action, deadlines, and moving forward. Instead, focus the conversation around collaboration, getting buy-in, socializing the idea, etc.

If they are a vision-based thinker, have conversations for possibility, ask about their ideas, what’s inspiring them, and what’s next. If they are a reality-based thinker, have conversations for facts & assessment. Ask about they’re current focus and their thoughts on current challenges. 


#2 T-leaf your conversations

“T-leafing” is a tool we created to help you apply your understanding of their thinking pattern to an effective conversation. It prepares you for conversations by having you think about what they want to feel, know and do before you decide what you want them to feel, know and do. 

It addresses the universal challenge outlined by Dale Carnegie: “the only way on earth to influence other people is to talk about what they want, and show them how to get it.” 

This is especially effective before leadership team or board meetings. T-leafing allows you to put yourself in their shoes, and speak to their listening. 

#3  Flip the script

Now that you are prepared for the conversation, let them know up front that you are flipping the script and will be primarily in listening mode. 

This is particularly helpful when you are in a new leadership role or having a performance. Formal performance reviews are typically 1-2 times per year. However, as my colleague Frank Mazza writes, managing performance should happen throughout the year.

During your next conversation about performance, ask your colleague to provide their own feedback. This conversation will likely go down 2 paths: 

  1. They have a self-inflated view. This allows you to respond to their views by providing a dose of reality to ensure that you are on the same page (and there are no surprises at the year end review). 
  2. They are too self-critical. By flipping the script they are  raising challenging topics about their performance that can be uncomfortable to bring up.  This allows you to lift them up by dampening their self-criticism.

#4 Practice Attentive Listening

My colleague Jill Vander Putten often reminds our team that  “listening is not waiting for your turn to speak.”

Too often when someone is talking, we are formulating our response rather than truly listening to them. Attentive listening means a singular focus on what they are saying, making consistent eye contact, nodding, and keeping your devices and other distractions away.

This is particularly applicable to video calls. We all know when someone is multitasking with email, IMs, or texts. Attentive listening on a video call means looking into the camera to replicate eye contact. Or if it is more natural to look into their eyes on video, move the video window as close to under your camera as you can.    

It also means getting comfortable with silence. 

Often, profound insights emerge when you provide the space for others to think and express themselves without interruption. You can also embrace silence as you formulate a thoughtful response rather than jumping in as soon as they’re done speaking. 

#5 Don’t say “Look” or “Listen.” Do say their Name.  

Have  you ever thought about the irony of saying “listen” or  “look” when you are talking to someone? If you have to say “listen” or “look” you are not having an effective leadership conversation. 

These are filler words, similar to my old go to  “ummmm”, but worse, as you are making a command (a conversation killer). These words buy you time while you think about what you are going to say next. It often means your words are outpacing your thoughts, you are unprepared, or are  uncomfortable with silence (see above). 

Embrace the silence, ask a thoughtful question, or if you need a filler word, use their name (another dopamine trigger). 

#6 Summarize what you heard and next steps

If saying their name is a dopamine trigger, reciting their thoughts, ideas, or visions back to them is a dopamine tsunami. 

This is a great way to validate that you have heard what they have to say, and are not having a “chocolate conversation.” If you did not understand everything they said, ask for clarification. 20/80 conversations are worthless if they’re just an exercise to make your colleagues feel heard. 

Ending the conversation by acknowledging what they said and letting them know how you plan to act on it is the key to a successful leadership conversation.

Validation from 20/80 Conversations

The best leaders surround themselves with those that are smarter than they are and think differently than they do. 

In my time on Wall Street and as an Executive Coach, I think this is one of the most difficult things for a leader to do.  Just as we are wired to make ourselves our own favorite subject, we are also wired for self-preservation.

20/80 conversations are a great way to validate that you have a strong leadership team. If you are not leaning on your team to drive the strategy, vision, and future of your business, then you too will fall into the trap of making it all about “me, myself and I.”

David Frost is fassforward’s Head of Executive Coaching and Managing Director. He strives to do good work for good people. He also focuses on business development and operational improvement. David previously spent 20 years on Wall Street. He received his A.B., magna cum laude from Princeton University.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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