Improving the quality of your conversations can be the key to transformation.
Talk, talk, talk
How much of your day is spent in conversation? If you’re lucky enough to work in a service profession like education or health, chances are your days are filled with face to face interactions; many professionals have experienced the sore throat that comes from a full day of conversing with others.
For leaders, too, the bulk of their day is spent in conversation. A study of CEOs published in the Harvard Business Review found that they spend 72% of their time in meetings; this number would not be a surprise to most leaders.
Importantly, the study also showed that these meetings, particularly in one-to-one and small group settings, are a crucial part of a leader’s work, allowing them to build relationships and create momentum for action. Yet, there’s ample evidence – both anecdotal and from research – that our workplace meetings and conversations are often perceived to be ineffective.
So if conversations are indeed critical to our work, how can you contribute and make a real difference?
Critically interrogate reality
In her book ‘Fierce Conversations’, Susan Scott argues that for conversations to be meaningful and truly affect change, they need to be robust and address the real issues, even – especially – if that may be uncomfortable for us. Discomfort usually signifies something that is worth talking about: a problem that is not easily solved, or a conflict of values and beliefs.
This is why coaching conversations often incorporate a stage dedicated to ‘defining the problem’ – looking with a critical eye at the current situation, and surfacing the obstacles and challenges there. Scott argues that it’s only by thoroughly ‘interrogating reality’ – digging into the problem, looking at it from different angles – that we can move forward towards solutions.
In a workplace conversation, it can be easy to gloss over issues in the ‘too-hard basket’, or to skip too quickly to discussing solutions. Yet, this can mean we address the surface problems, rather than tackling the underlying issues. Over the long term, this can lead to us feeling that we’re hitting the same wall over and over again, a key factor in burnout. If we have the courage to ‘tackle our toughest challenge today’, we increase our self-efficacy, which in turn increases our capacity to confront the challenges we encounter in the future.
Be authentic and present
Of course, it’s not as easy as it sounds. The discomfort and fear we feel in confronting difficult issues at work is quite understandable, and avoidance can become deeply embedded in the culture of an organisation. In one study, researchers examined the extent to which employees felt they had to put on an ‘act’ or express inauthentic emotion in meetings, and found profound negative impacts on meeting effectiveness and on employees’ emotional states.
A key argument made by Scott is that authenticity and presence are foundational to effective conversations. She says that we need to “come out from behind ourselves”. There are myriad reasons why this can be challenging, especially for leaders who may feel a need to project a certain persona. Nonetheless, Scott argues, when we acknowledge the weight and value of every conversation by being fully present and attentive, we can contribute to a robust conversation and open the possibility for real change.
Underpinning Scott’s work is the notion that honest conversation both demands – and demonstrates – respect. It requires us to be aware of the impact of our words, and to use them with integrity. This is an ancient idea, but one that is still powerful. Trust is, after all, the foundation of relationships; it is earned, and can easily be lost.
When we approach our conversations with humility, we make space for the other person to reflect and think. We acknowledge that an exchange of words can be powerful – and that silence may be even more so.
What will your contribution be to quality conversations?