May 29, 2022 7 min read

Communicating Effectively using Closure Conversations

Conversations for closure are critical for effective leadership communication.

Learning and implementing a typology of conversations can dramatically improve leadership communication and effectiveness. One such specific type of conversation is a conversation for closure. ‌‌‌‌

How can getting better at this kind of conversation help leaders communicate effectively?


A framework for conversations

In The Four Conversations, Laurie and Jeffrey Ford identity 4 unique types of conversations: Initiative, Understanding, Performance, and Closure. [1]

Amongst these four, closure conversations tend to be the most neglected  because they are assumed to be obvious and thus not needed. An example is the notion that you shouldn’t have to follow-up if someone is on top of their game or that they don’t need recognitions or acknowledgements that often.

In their paper on conversational profiles, they define closure conversations as:

...conversations intended to complete or close the loop on any requests or promises still open, actions taken (or not), or results produced (or not).

‌‌‌‌Whenever a promise is made (either independently or in response to a request), it creates a commitment to make something happen by a certain time.

Closure conversations close out those commitments by creating “endings” that acknowledge what has and has not been done and summarize the status of things. ‌‌‌‌

Repairing broken trust depends on closure conversations to clean up issues left by failed expectations or broken promises. ‌‌‌‌Vehicles for closure conversations include reports, recognitions, acknowledgements, and apologies, along with other forms of post-mortems or debriefs, such as after-action reviews. ‌‌‌‌

– Laurie & Jeffrey Ford in The Four Conversations [7]

What makes closure conversations so important and effective?

Driving engagement

Imagine a project where your team went all out on its efforts and achieved something remarkable. On completion, you do not acknowledge or recognize them for their stellar efforts.  What do you think that does to your team’s morale?

While this example maybe an exaggeration, this happens all the time, albeit at much smaller amplitudes and intensity levels. We tend to hold back when it comes to acknowledgment and recognition and wait for the big moment, losing out on smaller, more impactful moments along the way. Conversations for closure can be one of the most important conversations in keeping and boosting morale.

Recognitions are a well-trodded path in modern organizations as a tool to drive engagement but typically these tend to happen on a larger scale. But equal benefits can be had on a much smaller scale and task levels.

One metric is to look at how often managers are having closure conversations that recognize and acknowledge efforts, regardless of scope and importance. This does not have to be elaborate.

Even a 2 minute conversation or a  short email acknowledging and recognizing someone can go a long way. Unlike monetary rewards that are extrinsic, recognizing someone appeals to their innermost, intrinsic need for meaning and purpose in work.

As managers, we need to do this more often than is comfortable.

The idea is not reinforcing positive behavior in the classic terminology of behaviorism, but to build a mutual relationship where each person is seen as another contributing and capable human being.

We have a core need to be seen by others, to be acknowledged, and seen as contributing peers. Conversations for closure go a long way in achieving this.

Driving accountability

Conversations for closure can be powerful vehicles to drive accountability in entire organizations.

Clear, simple goals don’t mean much if nobody takes them seriously. The failure to follow through is widespread in business, and a major cause of poor execution. ‌‌‌‌You need robust dialogue to surface the realities of the business. You need accountability for results—discussed openly and agreed to by those responsible—to get things done and reward the best performers. ‌‌‌‌You need follow-through to ensure the plans are on track.‌‌‌‌

– Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy in Execution [2]

Requests and Promises are specific kinds of speech acts that are used in conversations. When we make a request, in response we get implicit or explicit promises in support of those requests (promises are acceptance of a request). [8] [9]

Without followup on requests, or in other words no conversation for closure, there is no incentive for the person to execute on your request. In a sea of competing requests and promises guess who’s requests will get priority? This is especially true when promises are implicitly assumed by the requestor.

Most of this is common sense but the trick is to identify more opportunities and waypoints for closure conversations instead of one final report. It is more of a process and behavior than one big final act.

This is also true for organizations as whole. Conversations for closure drive a culture of accountability in teams and organizations.

Akin to broken windows affecting the amount of crime in broken window theory, broken promises and agreements are emblematic and symbolic of larger issues.

Regardless of the importance and size of the promise kept or broken,  it drives a culture of accountability or a lack thereof.
broken promises and agreements are emblematic and symbolic of larger issues
Jug at the Window, Felix Nussbaum, via Wikimedia Commons

Managing commitments vs Keeping commitments

Broken promises and commitments are the organizational debris that slows down organizations by manifesting as lack of trust, lack of co-ordination, and lack of timely communication. And one of the chief reasons is the misunderstanding between managing commitments vs keeping commitments.

Nobody can keep all their  commitments but everyone can manage all their commitments by being upfront about the ones they can’t. Paradoxically, being upfront about our inability to keep a commitment builds trust faster than otherwise. [4]

Closure conversations gives everyone the opportunity to manage their commitments and their stakeholder relationships.

Building trust

All of us recognize the importance of trust in relationships. But it's not always clear how to go about building it. Conversations for closure are a valuable tool in building trust.

They give both parties an opportunity to fulfill a promise, and thus in turn build their identity and integrity in the process.

If you are in a relationship where there is a lack of trust or depth, make more promises and commitments and fulfill those commitments regularly using closure conversations. And notice the difference this makes.

Integrity at its most basic non-normative definition is that of keeping our word.

Closure conversations give everyone the opportunity to keep their word, and in the process build their own integrity and level of trust in the relationship.

Capturing feedback for learning

Closure conversations are an important tool for improvement when used as post-mortems and after-action reviews.

This is in fact one way to implement Chris Argyris’s double-loop and triple-loop learning, where you not only look for direct causes of failures but also for second and third order causes at a systemic level in order to prevent it in the first place.

How can we improve at something if we are not having those closure conversations? Closure conversations are where you acknowledge what went well, what did not, and ways to change that in future endeavors.

Closing the loop of promise-based management

In their Harvard Business Review article on promise-based management, Spinosa and Sull lay out three phases of effective promises:

  1. Meeting of minds
  2. Making it happen
  3. Closing the loop

Closure conversations are where the closing of the loop happens.

What really drives successful execution? Promises: employees’ personal pledges to satisfy concerns of stakeholders within and outside an organization. And when strategy implementation falters, poorly crafted promises are usually the culprits.‌‌‌‌

–  Charles Spinosa, Donald Sull in Harvard Business Review [3]

Without these conversations the loop never gets closed and the process loses its power, turning into a vicious cycle instead of a virtuous one.

Making communication actionable and generative

Any creative person knows that creation itself generates energy in the creator. This is the energy we feel when we have finished or created something. Even mundane things like mowing the lawn and washing dishes can be generative because we created something tangible that we can see and feel.

This is what David Allen identifies as the psychic satisfaction that you get from cranking widgets. You might be exhausted at the end of the day but you feel satisfied, reenergized, and ready for the next day.

One of the challenges in leadership and management is that you are always operating in the grey. There is no clear line that one crosses, no tangible widget that one cranks out everyday.

Everything can feel very amorphous. And if you consider that 90% of the time what managers do is communication and conversation, no wonder they feel they are not doing anything.

But upon closer examination, the doing of the manager is a series of conversations and managing those conversations. ‌‌‌‌Rather than managing people or resources they are managing conversations, which in turn start or keep things in motion.

And one of the ways you can make your conversations and communications more tangible is by understanding and using a typology of conversations. A typology gives conversations a certain shape and context, and by identifying them we have something to work with.

Closure conversations act as visible markers to signify the end of a process and thus help us harness the energy of creation and accomplishment in our communication. Conversations and issues that are closed properly also help lay the ground to initiate new ones.

One of the reasons we find it hard to get better at communication or any soft skill is because they tend to be amorphous and vague. The more granularity and vocabulary that we can bring to the game, the more opportunities we have for improvement and deliberate practice.

Conversations for closure is one such area where we can make immediate gains by focussing on the basics.

Further reading

For more on the importance of conversations in effective leadership, check out Effective Leadership as Effective Conversations and Deliberate Practice and Leadership Effectiveness.


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Footnotes and References

  1. Conversational Profiles by  Laurie Ford and Jeffrey Ford.
  2. Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done by Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy.
  3. Promise Based Management by Charles Spinosa and Donald Sull.
  4. Jensen, Michael C., Werner Erhard, and Kari L. Granger. “Creating Leaders: An Ontological/Phenomenological Model.” Chap. 16 in The Handbook for Teaching Leadership: Knowing, Doing, and Being, edited by Scott Snook, Nitin Nohria, and Rakesh Khurana.
  5. Deliberate Practice and Leadership Effectiveness.
  6. Broken Windows Theory.
  7. The Four Conversations by Laurie Ford and Jeffrey Ford.
  8. Speech Acts by John Searle.
  9. How to do things with Words by JL Austin.
Sheril Mathews
After a 20 year stint in various technical/management/leadership/ positions in the wilds of corporate America I started LS to help leaders & high performers level up their game.
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