by Lois Zachary
Maria decided she had work to do. She identified ten behaviors to help her stay in good conversation. She reviewed them and, what’s more, she actually followed-through and
got better at it. That is until…..
Until she got hit with new responsibilities and a nonnegotiable deadline, and then Maria’s good intention went out the door. Expedience ruled. Her team’s productivity for the third quarter fell. Project team leaders started complaining. As communication shut down, the level of mistrust increased.
What went wrong? Without being aware of it, Maria’s commitment to good conversation had turned into a monologue and transaction, superficial and utilitarian communication at best. Lack of good conversation created a communication vacuum. And, as we all know by now, nature abhors a vacuum. Maria’s team members filled the vacuum with assumptions about what they should or should not be doing. They, then, acted on those assumptions without finding out whether or not their assumptions were valid.
It is easy to fall prey to the trap Maria found herself in. Think about your reactions when you get stressed-out. What changes do others see in your behavior? If you are like most people, you become hyper-focused on end results and you find yourself telling people what to do instead of listening to their concerns and trusting them to get a job done. Your conversation becomes a monologue. Monologue is a non-conversation that shuts down, rather than invites, conversation.
Most people engage in a “transaction” when they mean to be in a conversation. That’s what happened to Maria. She went back and forth, speaking to her team members with surface or pseudo-conversation. For example her query, “Did you finish the specs for the project?” prompted a yes/no answer and invited a quick evaluative response (“good” or “better get moving”) on her part. Interaction gets closer to having a conversation but the interaction still remains on the surface. But, if you move the conversation toward a collaboration, the quality of the interaction shifts. Both the conversation and the relationship deepen. Here is where trust, respect, and openness are required.
Maria’s team member might open up and express her concerns about her new responsibilities, “I don’t think that is my strong suit and I think it shows. Last week I brought my team together and I just didn’t feel like I connected with them – they looked bored to me. I felt my anxiety rise. I don’t want to dread this – I want to learn to get better at it.”
Maria might respond with something like, “I remember feeling the same way when I first started out. I wasn’t prepared for it and I was trying to prove that I was smart. I was working too hard and it showed.”
The employee might say, “But you are such a natural at it. How did you get there?”
And Maria might respond, “I wish I could say it was an easy journey – I had to work at it, and I know you will too – but that’s something we can take on together.”
When conversation becomes dialogue, shared understanding emerges from the mutual learning that is taking place. Because trust is high there is no defensiveness. Conversation is open. As different perspectives emerge the thinking of those engaged in the dialogue expand. The “conversation” might look like this.
Team member: “What do you think are the most important qualities in a project leader?”
Maria would offer some ideas and ask, “What are your thoughts about that? Do you see it differently? I am especially interested in your perspective since you represent a younger demographic that might be looking for something different from what I focus on. Tell me about your viewpoint.” And with that response the dialogue would flow taking them both to a different place.
Strategies for Staying in Conversation
The key to effective leadership is not just being in conversation, but staying in conversation. That means being continuously engaged and in the process of creating good conversation. It requires intention, attention, self-accountability. Where are you on the conversation continuum? What do you need to do stay in conversation?
Lois Zachary is the President of Leadership Development Services, LLC. and an international expert on mentoring and leadership development. She has written several books on mentoring. The newest one is The Mentor’s Guide: Facilitating Effective Learning Relationships. Other books include Creating a Mentoring Culture: The Organization’s Guide, and The Mentee’s Guide: Making Mentoring Work for You