Some leaders and teams know that collaboration and creativity are vital for making enlightened decisions that move them toward their goals. Whether they realize it or not, their interactions and meetings are engaging, inclusive and productive.
How can other leaders emulate this success? They can start by learning these four fundamental types of conversations and understanding that skipping one or more creates a perilous conversational bypass:
The Narrative Conversation
We make sense of the world through narratives. They are critical and compelling, but they are also limiting.
“I think we must do this.” “We can’t go down that path.” “Our company is about the bottom line.”
Our narratives are a complex compilation of beliefs, emotions, facts and opinions, responding to the reality of the moment. Knowingly or not, we bring them all to every conversation. They mostly serve us well … until they don’t.
The Collaborative Conversation
There’s no shortage of divergent perspectives and possible interpretations of events. We need look no further than the current political climate to understand — and be appalled by — the devastating consequences of extreme positions.
Combative conversations are unproductive and stressful. Collaborative conversations, on the other hand, offer tools to dramatically alter dysfunctional interactions. Those tools help us process toxic thinking and change how we advocate and inquire.
The Creative Conversation
Creative conversations open our minds to wonder. This type of conversation is about being open to potential solutions. What else is possible? What other ideas can we generate? It’s the often-forgotten “right brain” complement to “left brain” rationality.
Creative conversations help us set aside lightning-fast judgments and assumptions so we can make mental space for insights and fresh thinking. Possibilities abound — but can we slow down enough to recognize them?
The Commitment Conversation
This type of conversation is the action conversation that enables us to coordinate with others to accomplish tasks. Every day, everyone generates promises (from washing dishes to signing weapons treaties), setting up a chain of events that determines who will do what, by when and how.
The promises we make govern our collective futures and the unfolding of life. The commitment conversation helps us make these promises mindfully. Smart commitment conversations lead to wiser decisions and more trusting relationships.
Few organizations, leaders and teams purposefully engage in all four conversations. In any group of people (business, social or family), the loudest or most authoritative voice usually calls the shots. Our potent narratives and our addiction to action are the one-two punch that knocks us into conversational bypasses.
Conversely, when teams engage in these conversations more deliberately, a sort of magic happens: Self-centered defensiveness, harsh judgments and win/lose attitudes give way to robust dialogue, tolerance of multiple perspectives and curiosity about possibilities.
Leaders who take the time to encourage all four conversations and avoid the bypass:
- Model effective listening to and learning from opposing perspectives.
- Humbly admit mistakes and change their minds.
- Reward fresh ideas and risk-taking.
- Reap the benefits of smarter decisions.
The Conversation Recipe
Here’s an example of how a technology leader and her team used a four-conversation recipe to avoid the conversational bypass:
We have an ambitious fourth-quarter goal. Our mission, budget and product success depend on a total team effort. We will hold one another to the highest standards.
We’re a world-class team of highly skilled individuals. We all bring our expertise and stories to the task, but I expect each of us — including me — to hold our positions with an open hand. We must be willing to reveal our thoughts and adopt a tolerant, learning mindset.
I expect our team interactions and meetings to be robust. There’s always more than one perspective, and dialogue should rely on indisputable data that help us assess various positions. For any given problem, we will take the time to investigate all angles with an open mind. Our meetings will be opportunities to grow smarter together.
After an open dialogue, we will explore multiple possibilities to avoid making rushed decisions. Let’s not be afraid to take risks and consider the ideas that develop from our conversations. Previously unconsidered solutions emerge from wide open “what if” conversations. Think big!
The decisions we make and the actions we take are wiser when we skip the bypass, but our decisions shouldn’t become a new narrative to defend. If we uncover new data or facts, we will learn and change course as needed. Sometimes, time isn’t on our side, and we have to make decisions quickly — but rushed decisions serve no one.
Avoiding the bypass and practicing all four conversations can help leaders transform team dynamics and shift cultures. Purposeful conversations help voices to be heard, teach better forms of dialogue, avoid “analysis paralysis” and rash decisions, and improve engagement. They ask us all to become more aware of the role we play in creating conscious conversations. They demand a humble, tolerant mindset. And they help us skip the bypass.
Leaders often say to me, “We don’t have time to do this.”
I always reply, “You don’t have time not to do this.”