The Canadian Conversation

A Coach's Guide to Front Line Communications

by Michael Kelly, MA


Fred, The Frustrated Miner

Years ago my father told me an unfortunate story. It seemed a miner named Fred had ended a shift injured and in utter frustration. It started when the previous shift left a mess for him to clean. He then had problems setting up his equipment and, on top of it all, he wasn't feeling well. After unsuccessfully trying to get organized he decided to walk away and sit for a few minutes to refresh and refocus. After sitting for a minute or two his supervisor came around the corner, saw him, and in a stern tone said:

"We don't pay people to just sit around. Get on with it!"

Fred flew into a rage, accusing the supervisor of being mean spirited. In his rage he grabbed a crescent wrench and slammed it against a drill. Unfortunately the blow didn't have the desired effect. The wrench grazed off the drill's edge causing the miner's hand to strike bare metal. He broke two fingers.

Certainly Fred bears some responsibility for controlling his temper in this situation, but how much better would things have been if the supervisor had not left him worse off than he found him?1

The "Canadian Conversation"

How should a supervisor approach a worker? How can the supervisor minimize the negative effects of the above communication? How can a communication morph into a friendly mentoring conversation or into a helpful coaching discussion? At what point would the supervisor need to assert authority in a first-line communication? This is where the "Canadian Conversation" comes into play.2

There are five questions asked in the Canadian Conversation. These questions can be grouped in four categories - greeting, emotional check, logical check and agreeing.

1. The Greeting

Most initial contacts start as conversations. In the case of the frustrated miner the supervisor might have opened with a greeting, rather than a judgment. 

"Hi Fred. How's it goin, eh?"

This open-ended approach generates a world of possibilities, from "Fine" followed by a pleasant conversation, to recreational complaining, to whining or to legitimate requests for assistance. The question gives the supervisor a chance to take more than a superficial interest in the worker. If, however, there is an important issue, the supervisor veers away from conversation toward a coaching discussion.3 It is time to enter the coaching zone, and proceed to the next question.

2. The Emotional Check

The second question checks the emotional state of the worker. Our supervisor might have asked Fred, after actively listening to his answer, if he was ready to talk about it. He might have asked:

"Wanna talk about it?"

This amounts to a request for emotional permission. By asking if Fred wants to talk about it and then observe his reaction, the supervisor is able to decide if a logical discussion can happen. If Fred is unable to talk or is emotionally charged, the supervisor takes contingency action. This could take many forms, depending on the severity of the response. The supervisor could encourage the worker to take a break or, in drastic situations, pull them from the site and get someone else to fill in temporarily. While these actions follow the responses of an emotionally overwhelmed person, the issue itself is not discarded. It will need to be revisited at a later time.

If Fred is emotionally ready, the supervisor can proceed to the next category.

3. The Logical Check

Assuming emotional permission is given, the supervisor then engages Fred in a logical, coaching discussion. Two questions are asked here, beginning with a question like,

"What have you tried so far?"

By asking this question the supervisor is attempting to get Fred to solve, or consider solving, the problem. A number of possibilities can present themselves. Fred could say he is in the process of trying something. If what he is trying is not illegal, immoral or life threatening, then the supervisor acknowledges and encourages him to proceed. If it is illegal, immoral or life threatening, the supervisor redirects Fred by telling him, engaging in a contingency action and revisiting the issue.4

If Fred has tried and failed, the supervisor might ask a follow up question like,

"Would you like some advice?"

If Fred is ready, the supervisor shares advice. This can be done by relating the supervisor's expertise or redirecting Fred to someone with the expertise. If Fred is not ready, the supervisor redirects him by telling him, engaging in a contingency action and revisiting the issue. Either way, a new path is set and Fred is able to proceed with his duties. Before he begins though, his actions must be agreed on - and this takes us to the next category.

4. The Agreement

The supervisor finally asks,

"So, let's recap. What are you going to do, eh?"

Here the supervisor recaps the issue, acknowledges successes and gains an agreement on the action to be taken.

Conclusion

This communication process is intended to help supervisors get the best out of each encounter with their workers. It enables them to maintain and exceed the minimum standards of communication, develops fruitful and respectful relationships, and allows them to take more than a superficial interest in their workers.

The following flow chart may help visualize the "Canadian Conversation" process.



__________

Notes:

  1. The minimum standard in communication says we never leave anyone worse off than we found them. This includes our selves.
  2. The Canadian Conversation is intended as a humourous mnemonic, building on the stereotype that describes Canadians as a people who end their sentences with the interrogative and raised inflection "eh." 
  3. Conversations are about anything, characterized by an informal exchange of impressions and ideas. There is no decision making required in conversations. As Stephen Miller suggests, "talk is generally purposeful whereas conversation is not. To be sure, conversation often metamorphoses into talk.” Talks, or more specifically discussions, are about something. They are purposeful, and generally a means to an end, directed at subjects like career advancement and potential decision-making actions. See Stephen Miller. Conversation: A History of a Declining Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. pp. 12-14.
  4. Telling involves communicating instructions to do something. It should include all the aspects of a Te=QQT/R. Contingency actions include all interim actions needed to accomplish a needed result. Revisiting involves returning the worker to the issue so that a better understanding is gained from the experience. This can be done immediately or at a later time - but it needs to be done.
© 2011  Michael C Kelly