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Conversation Summaries: A Crucial Skill for All Managers

    Bryan Green

    One of your primary responsibilities as a project manager is to keep your team on track and ensure that tasks are completed on time.

    However, communication breakdowns can quickly derail a project, leading to misunderstandings, missed deadlines, and wasted resources. This is why it’s essential to establish clear communication practices and establish next action steps after every conversation.

    I want to share how summarizing conversations to establish next action steps is one of the easiest things you can do right now to drastically improve communication and avoid common project pitfalls, especially if you’re a first-time project manager.

    Why Summarizing Conversations is Important

    Effective communication is the foundation of successful project management. As you advance in your career, you’ll spend less and less time actively completing tasks and more and more time communicating and delegating.

    As a project manager, you need to ensure that everyone involved in the project is on the same page and understands their roles and responsibilities.
    This requires active listening, clear articulation, and the ability to summarize conversations effectively. When you summarize conversations, you help to establish next action steps, clarify expectations, and ensure that everyone is accountable.

    Summarizing conversations is especially critical for junior or first-time project managers who may be new to the industry or in their role. If you’re not yet a project manager but you hope to be someday, or you’re in your first role as a PM, you’ll benefit significantly from this simple practice.

    How to Summarize Conversations Effectively

    One of the biggest challenges in summarizing conversations is distinguishing between directives and ideas. Sometimes people may say things that sound like directives, but in reality, they are just thinking out loud or suggesting a possible solution.

    If you assume that everything someone says is a directive, you risk misunderstanding their intent and creating unnecessary tension (or at the very least, more work for yourself, as you see to the completion of tasks no one is expecting). On the other hand, if you ignore potential directives and don’t follow up on them, you risk missing important insights and opportunities. In this blog post, we’ll explore how to navigate this challenge and summarize conversations effectively.

    The goal is to identify everything during a conversation that sounds like it might require further action. Sometimes, next steps are obvious. Other times, they may be hidden as suggestions. On other occasions, out-loud thoughts may present themselves as next steps when they may not be. But start with marking down all possible next actions, then use the post-conversation summary to clarify.

    From Experience

    When I was an assistant project manager in the heavy civil construction industry, I learned the hard way how important it is to summarize conversations to establish next action steps. During one project, we were tasked with building a new bridge over a highway. The project was behind schedule, and tensions were high. During a meeting with our concrete subcontractor, someone mentioned that we’d need different formwork to complete the project as designed and that it would need to be “looked into”. I had understood that to mean that where were going to explore their options and get back to us. Or, ideally, they would handle the order themselves.

    A few days later, the concrete formwork had not been delivered, and we were now facing further delays. I reached out to the subcontractor and asked for an update on the new formwork, and they replied that they thought I was going to handle the order. It was at that moment that I realized my mistake. I had assumed they would take care of it, but I had not confirmed it. Language like “this need to be looked into” or “we’re going to need this” with no further clarification can often lead to these types of misunderstandings.

    I wish that were my only such misunderstanding. I can assure you that every time I’ve run into a situation like this, it was due to failing to establish next action steps. I now try to make it a point to clarify the action items at the end of every conversation, assign tasks, set deadlines, and follow up to ensure that everything is progressing as planned. By doing so, we’re able to avoid similar miscommunications and mitigate further delays.
    Our previous post on meetings goes into more depth on the importance of finalizing a meeting with meeting minutes and responsibilities.

    Common Pitfalls to Avoid

    The reality is that different people communicate in different ways. I am someone who likes to think out loud. It helps me process information and keep everyone in the loop about my train of thought as we’re brainstorming. I like to think it helps keep the conversation driving forward and allows others to build off my initial thoughts. But sometimes, I (and others like me) will say something that sounds like a directive or a plan. For long conversations, there may be many opportunities for misunderstanding as multiple conversation topics are covered.

    By summarizing these conversations, you help to ensure that everyone is aligned on the next steps. This is especially important in project management, where multiple stakeholders with different priorities and agendas are involved. The goal is to create a shared understanding of what needs to be done, who needs to do it, and by when.

    Best Practices for Establishing Next Action Steps

    The first step in summarizing conversations effectively is active listening. When you actively listen, you pay attention to what the speaker is saying and make an effort to understand their perspective. This requires concentration, patience, and an open mind. You should also ask clarifying questions to ensure that you have understood their message correctly. One way to do this is to repeat what they have said in your own words and ask if you have got it right.

    Some people benefit from notetaking, but this may not always be practical. If you have a pen handy, or you can make notes on your phone, jot down some brief notes on anything that sounds like a next action. Just be sure to let your conversation partner know that you’re on your phone to take noes, and not distracted by other work.

    Where to Start

    Summarizing conversations is a quick, straightforward tool that you can add to your repertoire to drastically improve results.

    Here are a few simple steps you can take in the next week.:

    Active Listening and Note Taking

    In your meetings this week, make a conscious effort to listen actively during your conversations with team members. Focus on understanding their perspective and ask clarifying questions to ensure that you have understood their message correctly. Resist the urge to add your own thoughts right away, and give them opportunities  to expand on their thinking; especially when you don’t fully understand.

    Practice taking notes (the briefer the better) and then summarizing the conversation after it has ended. During the meeting, the notes need only be one or two words to remind you of the conversation point.

    Review With the Crew

    Take a minute before leaving the call/meeting/conversation to reiterate next steps and responsibilities.
    Saying something as simple as “hey, before we go, I’d just like to make sure we’re in agreement on next steps” can do the trick.

    While reviewing your thoughts with the group (or person), your conversation partner(s) may remind you of something that you forgot. Or they might inform you that something you’ve noted isn’t an action item. This is literally the goal of a conversation summary: squeezing the last bit of valuable information out of the meeting.

    Document and Distribute

    Immediately afterwards (while its still fresh in your mind) take a few minutes to jot down the key takeaways, including any directives or ideas that were discussed.

    Then, if the conversation necessitates it, send a follow-up email to the participants summarizing the conversation and the next steps. This will help to ensure that everyone is on the same page and can refer back to the summary, if needed. If this was just a one-on-one call or conversation, then it may not be necessary. But it doesn’t hurt to get it in writing for both of you to look back on. Check out this post on the true purpose of email for more info on how to use email effectively.

    Note: if someone has already been assigned the responsibility of taking meeting minutes, you probably don’t want to send out your own version. But definitely run your notes by them after the meeting to make sure they’ve captured everything

    Continuous Improvement

    Finally, be open to feedback from your team members on how to improve your summarizing skills. Encourage them to provide feedback on your summarizing and actively seek to improve your communication skills over time.

    Most people appreciate the recap, but some may find it annoying at first, or they may be confused as to why its necessary. If necessary, you can make it about yourself “this make sure I know we’re on the same page.”
    Or, you could even frame it from the perspective of assessing priority. Maybe more than one task came out of the meeting and you want to make sure you know what is most pressing.

    No one wants to be surprised in a week when something isn’t completed because everyone has been focused on less urgent or less important matters.

    The more often you do it, the better you’ll get at picking out the important next steps in every meeting and call. You want to reach a point where you can still be actively engaged in a conversation without losing track of the topics covered.

    Final Thoughts

    Summarizing conversations is an essential skill for everyone in the project management field. Pick up the practice now, no matter where you are in your career. Doing so helps to clarify expectations, identify potential roadblocks, and ensure that everyone is accountable.

    By summarizing conversations effectively, you create a shared understanding of what needs to be done, who needs to do it, and by when.

    To summarize conversations effectively, you need to practice active listening, ask clarifying questions, and confirm understanding. You should also avoid common pitfalls such as making assumptions, using jargon, and being too brief or too detailed.

    Finally, it’s crucial to establish next action steps based on the summarized conversation, such as assigning tasks, setting deadlines, and defining deliverables. By following these best practices, you can ensure that your team stays on track and achieves its goals. So, the next time you have a conversation with your team, remember to summarize it effectively to establish next action steps and drive the project forward.

    Give it a try this week.


    Bryan Green

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