Vital Conversations

By Judith E. Glaser | Leadership Excellence
Published December 2004

Create We-centric organizations.

Vital conversations describes the wonderful feeling of intellectual freedom to speak up about what’s on your mind without fear of criticism. It speaks to the openness that we all yearn for, yet often find challenging to create. As leaders learn to create the environments for courageous conversations, they multiply their chances for success. Focusing on creating “safe environments” for colleagues to speak up, step out, and pushback expands the potential for innovative ideas to be born, and is a primary skill for the we-centric leader. Innovation relies on birthing new ideas with others—having challenging conversations in the face of ambiguity. Having courageous conversations is the foundation for a healthy culture and a growth-oriented, profitable business.

Vested Interests

Rather than work through conflicts in a healthy way, people often bring vested interests to meetings. We all feel it when our colleagues speak with preconceived outcomes in mind. In these meetings, we often see people making suggestions but not listening to others. We see people selling their ideas but not considering the ideas of colleagues. The atmosphere often becomes adversarial.

Too often at work we find ourselves in meetings we don’t want to attend because we know what will happen. Lots of people talk, and emotions or words pass under the table—opinions are held in until the meeting is over and are then scattered in harmful ways. We often leave meetings with the same decisions still waiting to be made.

Perhaps you are lucky enough to attend a meeting with a facilitated agenda, and a process for inviting participation. Perhaps your meetings include robust dialogue, people sharing different points of view, being open to listen and influence each other’s thinking. Perhaps your meetings have healthy conflict, and the discussion leads to great insights. But more likely, you attend meetings where no such agenda is present, and no great dialogue takes you to greater awareness and wisdom about the situation at hand, or about the possibilities they could create in the future.

Territorial Instincts

What shows up at the meetings we don’t like are behaviors that originate from our territorial instincts. Inevitably, there will be unspoken battles among the participants: who will speak the most and the strongest; who will have positions that others believe are “right.” Who will say things that the meeting leader will think are brilliant, and who will be “brown nosing” the leader, or lobbying for airtime? When people are vying for position in a team meeting, they will mark territory. We all have instincts for survival and protection. We all want to look good in groups among our peers. Some people show off. They perform. They win points. If territorial behaviors are not quelled in a group, they become the drivers behind meetings. The meeting stage turns from one of discovering to one of positioning and one–upping. Many people just decide to be quiet and complain later.

Often, the time we allot to share our views with our colleagues turns out to be a one-way conversation with little exchange or two-way influence, and with little insight and wisdom as the result.

Making the Invisible Visible

We can play with the invisible elements of conversations to shift the dynamics and the outcomes. Through our conversations we give the future shape and determine its potential. Conversations that are negative limit expression. Conversations that are positive encourage participation. Most brainstorming sessions set the guideline that anything goes, no idea is a bad idea. Yet we often reserve these norms for brainstorming sessions. Conversations that invite shared leadership inspire participation and contributions. By observing the conversational dynamics—who talks and who doesn’t—you can observe how the energy flows and predict the outcomes.

  1. Focusing on the future rather than the past. Most conversations center in the past rather than the future. We talk about problems we have had, or problems we want to solve. We talk about negative experiences and how to fix them. We talk about what went wrong, and about unmet expectations. We focus on the past and reinforce the past.
  2. Focusing on challenging rather than preserving the status quo. Conversations that enable people to challenge the status quo trigger new insights and discovery. And conversations that allow people to speak about the truth open the space for “difficult issues” to be put on the table, discussed, and resolved.
  3. Focusing on positive rather than negative. If you were to record the interactions among executives and employees, you would find an overwhelming amount of comments on the negative side. We are judges and critics. When we listen to others, we rarely listen with a neutral ear; we listen with an inner voice that often thinks, “I could do better” or “your idea is stupid” or “you are stupid.”
  4. Focusing on asking rather than telling. We are tellers more than askers. In meetings, take the temperature on asking vs. telling and see what shows up. Again, the result is very “telling.” When we combine telling with negativity, we close down the potential for innovation and creativity to flow.

We can choose to shift conversations and thus shift the potential for new energy and possibilities. Some environments so strongly recognize selling, telling, and persuading as the primary influence strategies that those with intuitive natures feel out of place. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Logic and rationality can become a brilliant balance for feelings and intuition.

Setting a We-Centric Tone

Your ability to reach your next level of greatness is determined by climate, which is determined by the quality of the relationships, which is determined by the quality of the conversations. Conversations connect one person to another. When negativity, distrust, fear, control, and focus on the past dominate our conversations, they eat away at our heart and soul, limit our access to new wisdom and knowledge, close down our access to our spirit and passion, interrupt the catalytic nature of positive relationships, and block the serendipity of new encounters. The doors to creativity and expansion are always open—until we shut them.

Setting a positive tone in conversations enables us to connect with each other. The more our interactions are trusting, positive, and supportive of courageous acts, and the more we live in the present, the more likely we will tap the powerful energy we have to create next-generation innovation.

This reservoir of resources is inside of each of us, waiting to assist us in achieving our aspirations. When we set the tone, our spirits are activated in the workplace, our sense of what is possible expands—the impossible becomes possible. Where executives resort to telling people what to do, dictating how or doing it themselves, they prevent people from connecting through conversations of possibility.

Environments that are laden with rules and regulations about what can’t be done, rather than what can be done, are not attractive to entrepreneurial spirits seeking to make their mark on the world. Rule-laden organizations limit the human spirit from thriving. And then we ask why we have a stogy workplace, or why people don’t enjoy coming to work.

We-centric leaders are experimenting with new designs, shifting how work gets done, how people get rewarded, and how to involve more people in decision making. They activate insights and wisdom and seek new ways of leading healthy, thriving organizations.

ACTION: Set a positive tone.