Effective Conversations Are a Critical Leadership Tool

Seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? You’ve been conversing your whole life. There’s no mystery involved, right? Maybe. As a leader how do you use conversations to lead, to get stuff done? (I am distinguishing between a task-oriented meeting with four or more participants and conversations among two to three.)

People often start conversations with present-day events or concerns. For example, imagine that as you walk back to your office after a meeting, you exclaim to a colleague, “That meeting is a huge waste of my time.” From there people often wind their way into stories about the past where they sometimes get stuck. For instance, you might complain about a particular participant. “Sam told us the same story today he tells us every meeting about how he developed relationships with his customers in Arkansas and how we’ve got to build relationships with all our customers. Like we don’t know this is important. I wish he would just…”

In conversations, your job as a leader is to help people move from the present and past into the future so they function in the present with an eye on the future. However, it is difficult for people to even think about the future unless you acknowledge where they are now. This includes their attachments to the past. In conversations you can help people move beyond present-day realities and yesterday’s narratives by acknowledging their current experience and planting seeds about the future.

Imagine you have in fact just expressed your frustrations after a management team meeting to a colleague and she surprises you by saying, “I like our meetings. I get to hear what’s going on in other departments.”  You acknowledge what she said and give a nod to the future by saying something like, “So you like them because you hear updates from each of us? Hmmm. I wonder if there is a more efficient way to do that.”

Then, you bring her attention into the future by describing future challenges: “I think we need to be able do more than just update one another. I’d like to use the time in management team meetings to solve problems among our departments.”

Your colleague disagrees. “This is what our meetings have been for years. It’s how we build a family feeling among us.”  Your response: “I hear loud and clear that keeping the sense of family and knowing what is going on in other areas is important to you, as it is to me. However, we have really ambitious production goals this year and we are making significant changes in our production processes. I think if we could update each other in less time we would have more time to strategize about how to work together to solve the organization-wide issues these changes are bringing. We already know what some of them are. What do you think?”

Having been acknowledged, your colleague opens the door to the future: “Well, if we don’t lose that sense of collegiality or being ‘in the know’…what do you think we should do?”

You are ready with a next step. “I’d like set up a time to talk with our colleagues to redefine our role as a management team and how we might change our meetings to better carry out that role and work better together to tackle cross-departmental issues. Would you be willing to participate?”

When she says, “Yes,” you know you’ve used this brief conversation well.

In other words, to use our conversations to lead, we need to start with where people are, help them think about the present in the context of the future and identify what needs to be done today to create that future.

Mary’s book “Talk Matters! Saving the World One Word at a Time” is now available.  Click here to purchase it.

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