5 Conversations

“The quality of conversation we engage in could not be more important in the modern age.”

- 5 Conversations, page 26

Employee engagement is now recognized as critical to business success. 5 Conversations by Nick Crowley and Nigel Purse addresses leadership through the power of developing meaningful conversations, and offers powerful and practical tools to encourage employee engagement. True engagement is highly dependent on the quality of the relationships developed at work. Each conversation has to be authentic with the intention of appreciation, understanding, and trust, while also showing genuine care and compassion. The book discusses five key conversations which are essential to achieving success:

  1. Establishing a trusting relationship
  2. Agreeing on mutual expectations
  3. Showing genuine appreciation
  4. Challenging unhelpful  behavior
  5. Building for the future

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book


"So the problem is that our brains don’t recognize the difference between a difficult conversation and a sabre-toothed tiger!"
- 5 Conversations, page 54

Recent research has shown that various factors in a relationship can help to build trust. When more of these factors are present, the more likely you are to receive a positive response and build a trusting relationship. Conversely, when these factors aren’t present, the opposite will occur and relationships may sour. These factors are described in the mnemonic FIVEC which are critical components of the five conversations concept.

Familiarity: The concept of familiarity within the workplace has often being considered dangerous and undesirable. The modern concept is that by becoming more in tune with your team and being prepared to divulge more of your own needs and values with your co-workers, you can encourage mutual trust and respect to develop.  This results in a more open and healthy discussion around critical issues at work.

Influence: Influence can extend to social and interpersonal relationships, resource control, technical expertise and perceived status. Influence may be perceived as either a threat or an advantage, so it is important to be deliberate about how you use your influence.

Value: This one is obvious. People want to feel valued and the easiest way to do that is to tell them, take the time to outline the contribution the employee is giving and authentically tell them how much they are appreciated.

Empowerment: Empowerment refers to the degree of freedom to act that the employee has within the organizational structure. Freedom of expression generally allows engagement to develop within the confines both individual personalities and their experience. A new employee will most likely want some hand holding and a longer term employee may resent micromanagement. It is important to establish boundaries around what level of support employees want.

Clarity: Lack of clarity about the future is often perceived as a threat. As a leader it is important to remember that people need and value clarity around the future, and to provide as much information as possible.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Showing Genuine Appreciation

"This conversation is also about showing that you care about not just the performance of your people but also about their emotional well being."
- 5 Conversations, page 117

The traditional approach is focussed on problem solving and questions that tend to be based around “what’s wrong or what needs to be fixed?” The alternative approach portrayed in this book is built around the premise that everyone in the organization has positive aspects that need to be built upon. Switching these questions to something like, “what’s working well and what’s good about what you are currently doing?” allows a more positive framework to build upon. This concept is borrowed from some old research around “appreciative enquiry” which posits the belief that concentrating on problems tends to reduce the vision of opportunities in business.

The authors discuss the concept of appreciative enquiry in the context of a more personal interaction or more precisely, the second conversation, “showing genuine appreciation.” This conversation is based around the mindset of genuine curiosity about the employee’s success. It is recommended to have this conversation with every employee several times a year, and it can be either planned or spontaneous. Broadly the conversation should first understand and appreciate the individual’s contribution, and then explore options around future opportunities, and consolidate action plans and learning points.

The five conversations give all employees an experience of positive feedback and appreciation, but also gives you an understanding of everyone’s unique strengths and talents that they bring to the table. A win-win.

Potential questions include: “What’s been your biggest success in the last few weeks and how does that make you feel? How can we play to your strengths?”

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Non-violent Tough Questions

"This conversation is about having the courage, insights and resources to face up to another person's unhelpful behavior in such a way that you achieve a positive outcome for everyone involved."
- 5 Conversations, page 113

Dealing with unhelpful  behaviors or having difficult conversations are always considered some of the more challenging aspects of leadership and management. The conversations are about respect, primarily for your team members who have been impacted by the unhelpful  behavior, and should also be respectful of your team member showing this unhelpful behavior. This can be achieved by showing that you genuinely want to help them to be successful, but to do so requires some changes to their behavior.

The structure of the conversation is based on nonviolent or compassionate communication, which has three underlying principles;

  • Acknowledgement of your own inner feelings about the unhelpful behavior and accepting your reaction to it.
  • Listening to your team member with the intention of supporting them and accepting that there are real reasons for the behavior which are not necessarily malicious.
  • Being prepared to express your own feelings and needs.

With these underlying principles the process of discussing unhelpful behaviors has four stages.

  1. Observations. This stage is talking about facts and observations of the non helpful  behaviors in a non-threatening, non judgemental way and inviting a response. An example could be “John, I would like to discus the way you spoke to Sarah in surgery yesterday?” Follow up with “what was your recollection?”
  2. Feelings. This stage is about addressing the feelings the behavior has caused in you or others, and inviting a response. Acknowledging that these feelings are authentic is important as people can not challenge feelings. “Sarah was hurt by your comments, especially because there were many people present” and then revisit with “how were you feeling at the time?”
  3. Needs. Move the discussion onto the needs you need as a leader so they can understand where the disparities have occurred. “Sarah has a need to be treated with respect by you and her contributions should be recognized. What needs do you have?” It is important to invite a response from your team member about how they were feeling and how they are feeling now.
  4. Requests. Make a clear request of your team member. “My request of you is that you don’t make personal negative comments about colleagues during work, will you be able do this and what needs do you have?”

I believe we have lost the true art of authentic one to one conversations. This book will give you powerful and practical tools to overcome this deficiency. Many people take a confrontational approach to conversations—especially when they need to give feedback or correct behavior. This framework will help you overcome this urge, approach conversations with an open mind, and create trusting relationships.

How will you use conversations to develop trust and engagement with your team?


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Peter Taylor

ABOUT Peter Taylor

I have owned and managed a veterinary based business on the west coast of Australia for 18 years. No one at Veterinary school gives us any clues about running a business and it is only in the last few years that I have started to study business and management...
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