The Conversational Leader
Remember that course you took in grad school about listening and engaging in good conversations? Oh right, there was no such course. Not in grad school or any school before that. If we are lucky, we learn how to have a decent dialogue through good role models or supervisors along our way. Sadly, most of us do our best and call it a day.
And then there are those folks we call “naturals”. They are people who are comfortable asking interesting questions, waiting through long pauses, listening intently to responses, asking follow up questions to probe more deeply, sitting back calmly while conflicting ideas emerge, hearing what people have in common and making everyone feel heard and valued in the process. Do these people just pop out of the womb like this? Or are these skills that can be learned? And why is this important to being an effective leader?
This seems to be the focus of much of my work lately.
- “I know that the staff just wants me to tell them what to do but I’d rather have a conversation about the issue.”
- “We’ve had enough conversation on this topic. Now I just want to decide and move on. When is it okay to shut it down?”
- “My style is much more conversational but I have to get up in front of larger groups to deliver our key messages. I just don’t like the bullet point driven type of communication.”
- “I’m much better at one on one talks than conducting team meetings. I can’t keep track of all the dynamics when there are more people in the room.”
- “I believe in consensus building for all the big stuff. But the staff seems frustrated by having to have long conversations.”
- “I’m very comfortable letting the dialogue meander and when there are long pauses. But I can see that others are very uncomfortable. Do I have to lead these meetings differently? Or how can I get the team more adept at hashing things out?”
Although I have worked with plenty of introverted and socially awkward leaders who are very effective, those that can engage in productive conversations fare much better in the eyes of the staff. What any of us want in our interactions at work is to be heard in a respectful manner. Sure, we’d also like to get our way and for you to see how brilliant we are but we can settle for being heard. What’s more, we do our best work and have a good attitude if we know that our leaders have respected our point of view. This is why it is an important skill to develop.
For those of you who struggle with easy, productive dialogues, think about the person across from you as a storybook. There are interesting story lines, unexpected plot twists, nuanced descriptions and new chapters all waiting for you. You ask a question and hear part of the story. That makes you curious to know what happens next or what new idea or character enters the scenario. Or you hear a passage that makes you sit and think or evokes some emotional response. Although we don’t interact with a book, learning about someone else can be as reflective as reading.
Many of us are reactive rather than reflective in our conversations. That causes quick, often short sighted, responses that creates tension. Listening has stopped. Respect may not be felt. Withdrawal or aggression may ensue. Conversation has turned into combat.
But if you think of dialogue as learning the story of someone else, you can shift away from how awkward you feel. When we read, we want to know what is going to happen next. When we listen to someone else, we can ask questions to learn more. We don’t have to think as much about responding in a smart and clever way. Instead we can think about reading the next chapter.
Being adept at authentic conversation is a critical leadership skill. Creating space and dignity for others to tell their stories, to share their ideas and to feel respectfully heard is essential in developing a healthy organization. If you have received feedback that you don’t do this well, see if you can think of people as interesting novels that you are dying to read.