How to Elevate & Align the Impact of our Conversations
Updated: Dec 30, 2021
In the past 12 days, I led two sessions each of my classes on “How to Approach Difficult Conversations” and “How to Master Conversational Intelligence to be a Better Leader.” Although both classes have different focuses and lists of practical tips, I continue to be struck by two things. First, how too few of us recognize and appreciate that conversations are how we either connect or disconnect from each other and the needle can drastically swing in either direction in a nanosecond. And second, how so many of us are lost, and sometimes paralyzed, at how to initiate and facilitate some of our more challenging conversations.
Conversation skills should not be shrugged off or marginalized. They are one of the most critical of our communication competencies. Conversations are the building blocks of relationships and the quality of our conversations impacts the quality of every one of our relationships. Professionally, that means relationships with colleagues, clients, and our larger professional network. The dos and don’ts also apply in our personal relationships. One of the attendees of my recent session, emailed me the day after class to say that she shared all seven pages of her notes with her husband, and they had a very lively and beneficial discussion.
Conversational Intelligence® is the knowledge of how our brains process conversations and the defensive postures we can trigger if we are not careful in what we say and how we say it. The concept of conversational intelligence is based on a revolutionary body of work by the late Judith E. Glaser. Her book, Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results is the go-to resource. The Creating WE Institute, which Glaser co-founded, provides extraordinary resources on the subject.
According to Glaser, our brains are designed to detect trust and distrust in our everyday conversations. In the Harvard Business Review Article “Your Brain is Hooked on Being Right,” she explains that conversations trigger physical and emotional changes in our brains that either open us up to healthy and trusted conversations or close us down so that we are acting and reacting from a place of fear and caution. When we face criticism, rejection, fear, stress, or distrust, the thinking center of our brains immediately shuts down and our instinctive brain takes over. “We will protect ourselves by defaulting to one of four responses: fight (keep arguing the point), flight (revert to, and hide behind, group consensus), freeze (disengage from the argument by shutting up) or appease (make nice with our adversary by simply agreeing with him).”
Every one of these default modes completely shuts down the honest and productive sharing of information. It stifles our ability to do our job effectively and secure what we need for the good of our teams, offices, and organizations.
A significant reason for conversational derailment is that there are five dimensions to every conversation: what we say, what we mean, what others hear, how we feel afterward, and how the person or persons feels afterward. When these dimensions are not aligned, things can go from bad to worse, quickly.
To be the best communicators, we need to learn to align our intentions, or what we want to happen, with our impact, or the quality of the experience from the listener’s perspective. Our intent, however, will always take a back seat to how our words or actions made the other person feel.
There are many things we can do to help ensure we do not provoke a defensive posture. Between the two classes I described in my first paragraph, I share dozens of communication tools we can try. In this abbreviated format, I propose the following simple habits, each of which will make an enormous impact.
Before initiating the conversation, we owe it to the other person and ourselves to see if we have made any judgments or assumptions about the other person’s intentions or our innocence. Because, what we are feeling or thinking, may not have been their intent at all. We also need to stop viewing ourselves as a victim and the other person as a villain. This is a narrative we create to dismiss any responsibility we may have for another person’s behavior or attitude.
If we create a safe zone for the conversation to occur, the other person is more likely to perceive the information as nonthreatening. The kindest and conversationally intelligent course is to invite someone to the conversation. When we extend an invite to discuss a matter, it allows the other person to be prepared and calm. It avoids any perception of a sneak attack, which immediately puts the other person on the defensive.
A simple to execute, but impactful new habit is to start our sentences with the word "I", as opposed to “you.” Statements, such as “I feel” and “I believe,” assure our words are free of putdowns, judgment, and blame. I can promise you that this tweak will immediately and positively change the tone of our conversations.
If we want to maintain any feeling of trust in the conversation, we need to avoid making any generalizations or exaggerations. They destroy our credibility and put the other person on defense. I cannot be the only one who hears “you always” or “you never,” and all I can think about from that moment on, is an example of when that was not true!
To put the other person more at ease and open to the conversation, we need to provide assurances that there will be a chance for both of us to share our views and be heard. To follow through on our promise, we need to let the other person talk until he or she is finished. It is particularly important to focus on what we are hearing, not what we are going to say next, or our rebuttal.
After we have both had a real opportunity to share our view of the situation, it is time to step back and begin to discuss the next steps. At this point in the conversation, the discussion needs to be about the present and the future. It is not productive to keep harping on the past.
In the article Conversational Intelligence at Work, Judith Glaser and Ross Tartell explain: “When we become conscious of the interaction dynamics we use every day— and the quality of our conversations and how we impact others—we can elevate our conversational intelligence, one conversation at a time.” When we lead conversations that spark positivity, we raise our conversational intelligence. When these conversations occur at work, we can amplify employee engagement, performance, satisfaction, retention, learning, appropriate risk-taking, and trust. And that is an extraordinary return on any time investment we may make to prepare for productive and positive conversations.