Quality Conversations

Written by: Alan Rodway

Our ability to have quality conversations internally is crucial to teamwork, leadership and the overall performance of people.

A quality conversation is one that centres on the real issue, is held with the right  person/people, is couched in objective terms and is held at a right time. There are four aspects to that. First, the actual issue has to be at the centre of the conversation, not a side issue. Second, the conversation has to be with the person/people directly involved with the issue. Third, the conversation must stick to the facts, not emotion, not generalised and not extrapolated. Fourth, there are right and wrong times to have conversations, and most often it is fairly obvious which is which.

The most effective way to have quality conversations is to have an established platform within the business for them to occur. That is, people buy into the fact that they are part and parcel of overall high performance. The platform should be based on trust, teamwork, time efficiency and being on the same page. If this platform is not already part of the business’s approach and culture, it should be changed over time through conscious effort of leaders.

Even with a solid platform for quality conversations it is still necessary to have them skillfully. So consider the following factors:

  1. Stating that I want to talk ‘with you’ is more productive than saying I want to talk ‘to you’. The former is collaborative and invites the recipient into a communication arena whilst the latter is more instructional.
  2. Never use phrasing that can be taken personally. It’s not about the person; it’s about the issue.
  3. Never generalise. That will make it reasonable for the recipient to debate the frequency of occurrence rather than staying on point.
  4. Avoid emotional phrasing. “It’s really not good enough” may or may not work, so don’t take the risk.

It is important to be clear on the purpose of the conversation and therefore to remain on track… to get a behavioural change, a decision or a process improvement. Having the purpose front of mind makes it a lot easier to stay on point rather than getting sidetracked.

Timing of conversations is important. There are two important points here: 1) Some conversations have to be conducted spontaneously, of course, out of necessity. 2) Personal sensitivities should not be allowed to delay conversations. Notwithstanding those two points the conversations should be held when they are likely to be most effective, according to just common sense.

Should personality differences be catered for? Yes and no. If this is done skillfully, without compromising timing and outcomes, then that is what should happen. But if it turns to outright pandering then that is just perpetuating poor behaviour. Respectful communication is again crucial to dealing with different personalities. If the other party reacts poorly to that, then there is a coaching need of them that needs to be taken up separately.

An extension of never personalising conversations is that all parties must feel safe. If not, then all of the facts may not come out. Feeling unsafe could be about embarrassment, retribution or even tenure. This again goes to the platform that has been established. If someone feels safe, they are way more likely to engage honest messaging that can lead to a positive resolution.

Part of the platform has got to be that debate is healthy, therefore different opinions are not just acceptable but encouraged. This is almost a different paradigm to the way some people think. “If we disagree, what will happen?” compared to encouraging different thoughts and opinions on the basis that the best decisions are arrived at by engaging various thoughts and debating possibilities. Sending a genuine message that agreeing or disagreeing is not what’s important; it’s thoughts and discussion that helps to improve the way forward.

Recipients will sometimes attempt to divert the conversation away from the real issue, deliberately or accidentally. When this happens, the same message needs to be repeated to disallow the distraction. It is sometimes necessary to do this more than once for people to become clear on the message itself and that the real issue is going to be discussed, irrespective of any diversionary comments.

We all have emotions but leadership requires that they are allowed into play when they will help a situation not because we give in to them. Everyone should be encouraged and coached to exercise this discipline. Excitement, passion, annoyance, impatience, determination, frustration are all normal emotions but the outward display of them should be selective when important issues are being discussed. Difficult? …. Yes. Important? …. Yes. Leadership behaviours require us to communicate above our emotions at times.

Quality conversations should be occurring with everyone, including up, down and across the organisational chart. It is not (just) the responsibility of the more senior people to engage others in these conversations; it is everyone’s. It is a sound notion that managing up and

across is essential to high team performance, and that goes hand in glove with having quality conversations across the board.

We should also be having quality conversations with ourselves. Self talk is the predominant conversation in each of our lives so it is important that some of these conversations are brilliantly true. Self truth is necessary for self improvement !

Being time poor is one of the most common (poor) excuses for not having quality conversations but that just does not wash. If we give over to that then we will remain time poor by not dealing with some of the real opportunities we should be taking. Improved behaviours, better ways of doing things, new ideas, etc. can all be time savers, beyond the conversations themselves.

Other common barriers to quality conversations are fear, distrust, history and habit. Each of these can take some time to cut through but, again, we need to persist to rid teams of these barriers.

If anyone is truly unsure of how to approach a particular conversation then they should seek help from a colleague. Such exchanges are highly likely to be mutually beneficial from a development perspective anyway and no one should hesitate to seek such counsel. Demonstration of one’s own willingness to learn from others is an extremely important leadership trait.

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