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Changing Your Conversations for More Positive Outcomes

This article was based on the TED@State Street Talk, “The Importance of Good Conversation and How to Have It,” by John O’Leary:


The importance of good conversation – and how to have it – John O’Leary


The Tragedy of the Challenger

On the morning of January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Just 73 seconds after launch, it exploded, killing everyone aboard.  What you may be surprised to know is that there were 34 people who immediately knew exactly what had gone wrong and why.


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A Case Study on Conversation

John O’Leary begins his TEDTalk by recounting this tragic incident because the space shuttle Challenger makes for an interesting case study about the importance of conversation.  This was a high-profile disaster for many reasons. Most prominently, in addition to the six astronauts on board, there was also Christa McAuliffe, a teacher, who was bringing education to space. She brought unbelievable media attention to the launch.  Another interesting fact was that the launch had been postponed from the previous week. Also, the night of the rescheduled launch, President Regan was to talk about the Challenger’s flight in his State of the Union address.

The most critical fact about the launch was that at the time, Florida was experiencing particularly cold weather.  This unusual weather started a fateful cascade of events. The day before the launch, at 2:30 in the afternoon, an engineering company called Morton Thiokol informed NASA that the launch needed to be rescheduled.  They felt it was too cold and the o-rings could fail catastrophically. The o-rings are small rubber gaskets that connect sections of the rocket fuselage and help to ensure that the fuel is contained


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This led to a three-hour conference call about whether or not the o-rings would be able to withstand the expected cold temperatures. The Morton Thiokol engineers had very strong evidence that they might not. They knew that the rubber would become stiff in cold temperatures, compromising its ability to create an effective seal. They had also seen blow by in prior cold-weather shuttle launches where small amounts of fuel had escaped leaving black carbon marks on the outside of the rocket.


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NASA was not convinced and did not want to postpone the launch. Under pressure from NASA, Morton Thiokol faxed over documentation stating that the o-rings would be able to withstand the launch. The shuttle launched as scheduled, and the o-rings failed. Rocket fuel escaped, and the Challenger exploded, killing everyone aboard.


Failure of Machine Versus Man

The point of this story, O’Leary explains, isn’t engineering related, it is about the importance of conversations.  Most people are aware that the o-ring failure ultimately led to the tragic ending of the Challenger launch. However, very few people are aware of the conference call between NASA and Morton Thiokol. The Challenger disaster has been greatly mischaracterised as a mechanical failure when, in actuality, it was a failure of human communication.


Kennedy’s Conversations

O’Leary goes on to point out other conversations that made the difference between success and failure. In particular, he focuses on the Kennedy Administration.  When Kennedy came into office, he was informed by his military advisors that there was a planned invasion of Cuba underway. The military and the CIA had secretly trained approximately 1,400 Cuban expatriates with the intention of landing them on a beach in Cuba called the Bay of Pigs to try and overthrow Fidel Castro.


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Kennedy met with his military advisors, all of whom assured him of the soundness of this plan. However, there was one man on his staff who was deeply opposed to this plan, Arthur Schlesinger. He knew the American-trained soldiers were ill-equipped to go against Castro’s army, yet he never said anything.

Kennedy approved the launch, and it was a disaster as 1,400 people were either killed or taken prisoner. There was, fortunately, a small silver lining – President Kennedy changed the way he held conversations with his staff. Two years later, this would prove remarkably important as the Cuban Missile Crisis began.

When the Soviet Union began building nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, Kennedy’s military advisors called for a swift military response.  Instead of agreeing, Kennedy wanted conversation. He separated his staffers into two groups – one that wanted military intervention and another that favoured negotiation and blockade.  Because there were two groups, they were each able to challenge the facts and reasoning of the other. Cooler heads prevailed, and a settlement was reached through negotiations. It is truly no exaggeration to say that World War III was averted because President Kennedy had learned how to create better conversations among his staff.


Business Conversations

Having better conversations isn’t just for people in the government.  People come together to make important business decisions all the time.  The problem is that they sometimes don’t take these conversations very seriously.  Our conversations are important because the quality of our conversations influences the quality of our decisions which dictates the quality of our outcomes.  


3 Myths About Conversations

There are reasons that human beings are not very good at sharing information in a group setting. O’Leary calls these the three myths that keep people silent:

  1. The first one is the incorrect belief that dissent equals disloyalty.
  2. The second is that criticizing an idea is the same as criticizing the individual.
  3. The third is that disagreeing with the consensus of the group means you are not a team player.


How to Change Your Conversations

Luckily, there are techniques you can use to change the context of a conversation. Simply telling someone that you really want to know what they think isn’t enough to overcome the barriers that people have.

One way to do this is with independent deliberation.  You may think that the best way to hear from a group is to bring them together to have a conversation. Counter intuitively, that isn’t always the case.  In a group setting people may just say what they think you want to hear. Instead, try asking people to write down their ideas and bring them to the meeting.  

Another technique is what’s called Devil’s Advocate or Red Team. Here, the leader assigns a group to poke holes at an idea or plan. This gives them the psychological permission to do the things they are not allowed to do in a normal group setting.

Conversations can be very important before a large undertaking as a way to draw out the pitfalls or the risks associated with it. However, there’s another very important role that conversations have. This is when conversation is used to inspire, engage, and bring people into a great and ambitious endeavor.


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