The ability to have balanced, learning-focused conversations under pressure is a pivotal competence right now. In our rapidly changing world, everyone's scrambling to figure out how to work together in a new, evolving context. How do we collaborate in a virtual environment? How do we provide valuable service to our customers? What does the future hold, and how do we prepare for it?
I've been talking to a lot of CEOs, executives, and managers about this challenge: How do you lead in a way that increases your team's ability to work together effectively as they grapple with questions like these?
The answer: Build your own conversational capacity, and that of your team.
I’ve written extensively about this topic in my books, Conversational Capacity: The Secret to Building Successful Teams That Perform When the Pressure Is On and Influence in Action: How to Build Your Conversational Capacity, Do Meaningful Work, and Make a Powerful Difference.
In both books, I describe conversational capacity as the ability—of an individual or a team—to have constructive and learning-focused dialogue about difficult subjects, in challenging circumstances, and across tough boundaries. This is a key concept taught in the Conversational Capacity® leadership development programme I designed for The Ken Blanchard Companies. Someone exercising leadership is building the conversational capacity of their team or organisation so it can address even its biggest challenges in a collaborative and productive way.
This is harder than it sounds, especially if you’re the one in charge. Nothing lowers conversational capacity more predictably than the presence of authority. When the boss is around, people are more cautious about how they participate in meetings and conversations. When an authority figure is in the room their presence, much less their behaviour, often limits a team’s ability to bring their best thinking and ideas to the table. An important challenge for leaders, therefore, is to learn to participate in conversations in a way that increases the conversational capacity of their team.
That means ramping up your curiosity as a leader and being genuinely interested in how other people see things—especially when their perceptions differ from your own. This requires you to be intellectually humble so you don’t walk into meetings thinking you have all the answers. Instead, you’re like anybody else, walking in with ideas that you want to bounce off the team, eager to hear from people who see things differently. As one CEO put it: “My job is to be right at the end of the meeting, not at the beginning.”
Building your conversational capacity requires a clear focus on learning, getting smarter, and thinking more clearly. You listen to people who see the world in contrasting ways. But mere exposure isn’t enough. Our differences only facilitate clearer thinking and smarter choices if we have a bias for learning that is greater than our natural defensiveness toward new and conflicting ideas. To learn from diverse perspectives, we need the discipline—the conversational capacity—to approach conversations with differently-minded people as opportunities to spark an ‘aha’ moment: that exhilarating experience of having a blind spot in our mental map of reality suddenly illuminated.
Given all the changes and challenges we’re currently facing, this is a particularly important mindset to adopt. With high conversational capacity, a team of people can put their most painful issue on the table and do really good work around it. When conversational capacity is low, however, a team's performance can be derailed by a minor difference of opinion.
The goal is to help our teams and organisations learn to converse in the sweet spot where candour and curiosity are balanced. When this happens, people talk in an open, direct, no-nonsense way, but at the same time they’re open-minded, inquisitive, and eager to learn. It is in this balanced place that great conversations and highly effective teamwork occur.
The ability to learn with others, in even in the most uncertain and difficult circumstances, is an increasingly critical skill in today’s world. The teams and organisations that succeed will achieve a higher level of collaborative learning and engagement that enables people to bring their best ideas to the challenges at hand. As a leader, developing your own conversational capacity—and that of your team, project, or organisation—is the key to doing this well.