The High Cost of Pointless Conversations

HAVING WORKED WITH LEADERS and teams for 27 years, Tanja M Jones has observed how many of them spend too much time talking about ‘stuff’, situations or people outside of their control, with not enough time speaking for possibility, excellence, innovation and change. Here are some good reasons why leaders should think first before they speak, and how the things that are said can go a long way towards creating success.

While the number of words the average person speaks per day can depend on age, culture and other factors, a University of Arizona study found that most people speak around 16,000 words every 24 hours.

This study found no significant difference between male and female subjects, debunking previous claims that women speak over 10,000 more words in a day than men. This means we are speaking nearly six million words per year, yet how effective are the words we use?

Have you ever stopped to calculate exactly how much time you spend speaking and assessed the quality of your words? Studies from McKinsey Global Institute, International Date Corporate and the Journal of Communication have. Their key findings were that leaders spend about 80 per cent of their workdays communicating.

This is a huge part of the day, so how do we get to that percentage? Consider that all communication is divided into many forms. According to The Washington Post, CBS Money Watch and The Muse it is as follows:

  • 28 per cent: the portion of each workday dedicated to reading and responding to emails
  • 26 per cent: the portion of each workday the typical Fortune 500 CEO spends on the phone.
  • 50 per cent: the portion of a senior manager’s typical workday dedicated to meetings. (The same research finds that organisations spend 15 per cent of their collective time in meetings.)1

Add this to the impromptu conversations with co-workers and employees, corporate meetings, strategy days and, for some, the external speaking engagements that leaders juggle, and it’s a wonder they — or anyone else in the office — ever have time to get their ‘real work’ done.

Understandably, each industry and organisation is different and no two surveys will turn out the same results; however, these examples show just how much time leaders spend communicating.

Human beings are social animals and leaders are no different. We spend countless hours speaking with our teams, clients, colleagues, suppliers, family members and friends, and the possibilities for conversation are seemingly endless.

We can talk about recruitment, the market, listings, rentals, arrears, results and competitors. We can encourage, make plans, crack jokes, dream about the future, share ideas and spread information, and we can do all of this in person or via a multitude of social media and online platforms.

This ability to communicate – with almost anyone, about almost anything – has played a central role in our species’ ability to not just survive, but absolutely thrive.

However, in my experience as a coach, having worked with leaders and teams for 27 years, I have come to learn that many leaders spend too much time talking ‘about’ stuff, situations or people outside of their control.

Not enough time is spent speaking for possibility, excellence, innovation and change in areas within their influence.

I have found this is one of the biggest time-wasters there is. It also completely erodes connection and fuels negativity; it impacts morale and reduces productivity and therefore profitability.

I believe that all leaders are working with the best intentions, but most don’t even realise they are creating a counterproductive reality. Many have never been trained in the art of effective communication for results, let alone discovered how to teach their teams to do the same.

Bestselling author Steven R Covey highlights in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People that the first habit of a highly effective person is to be proactive. Steven defines proactive as “being responsible for our own lives”.

Consider that our behaviour is a function of our decisions, not our conditions. Proactive people focus on issues within their Circle of Influence. They work on things they can do something about. The nature of their energy in doing this is positive, enlarging and magnifying; therefore they increase their Circle of Influence and improve results.

Our Circle of Influence encompasses the matters that we ‘can’ do something about, elements we have some control over. They include our values, goals, team, clients, prospecting and marketing. On a personal level they include our health, wealth, mindset, emotions, hopes and dreams.

Then we have our Circle of Concern. When we operate from here we are highly reactive and our conversations are typically focused on all the factors that are outside our control. This may include the market, industry, weather, competitors, politics, the news, the threat of war – as well as celebrity hook-ups, bust-ups and plumped-up-lip-jobs.

The dialogue in this circle is usually full of explanations, justifications and descriptions of what is, or at least our perception of what is. Here we are usually thinking and talking ‘about’ others, or the past, which can be rather pointless because it doesn’t forward anything; it doesn’t create anew or elevate progress.

This style of conversation also takes up a lot of energy and, when we communicate from this space, we enrol others in our Circle of Concern, which unconsciously elicits their apprehensions. This can take the entire team’s focus off the game and how it will be played, let alone won.

Reactive people tend to neglect those issues that are within their control and influence. Their focus is elsewhere and their Circle of Influence shrinks. They become a victim of circumstance, rather than a creator of results.

This Circle technique, understanding and distinguishing between influence and concern, is a great tool for separating out lower from higher priorities, and gaining action for ownership. Use this tool to figure out which circle you are operating in and use that knowledge to change your dialogue for better results and engagement in your team.

To determine which circle you and others are operating within, listen to the language used. Here is an example of the differences and what to look for.

Circle of Influence (Proactive / Empowered / Creator / Results)

  • Makes requests and promises
  • Declares intentions
  • Speaks in terms of ‘I will (take that action)’

Circle of Concern (Reactive / Powerless / Victim / Reasons)

  • Explains and justifies results based on external influences
  • Describes the way it is
  • Speaks in terms of ‘I have (been impacted by)’

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Tanja M Jones

Tanja M Jones is a Leadership, Mindset and Peak Performance Specialist. For more information visit