The power of real conversations

Conversations – probably the smallest biggest thing in transforming organisations

23 June 2022

Conversations are where we connect as humans – where we make and create meaning together. In this article, we describe why forward-looking leaders need to master real conversations, why conversation is an overlooked transformation superpower and what capabilities are needed to design and hold space for conversations that move us forward meaningfully.

Imagine a handful of colleagues have gathered in the meeting room, chatting and getting ready for the monthly leadership meeting. As always, the agenda and slides have been shared as pre-read, everyone is familiar with the flow, there is a walkthrough of the planned agenda points, and it is mostly information sharing. A recurrent meeting with the same format, which is predictable and where everyone knows everyone’s position on most issues.

Most people are familiar with how it feels to be in meetings where the topic is experienced as meaningful, where everyone is fully engaged and where we lean in to create something together that we could not have done alone. That was not exactly the feel of the monthly leadership meeting.

The CEO truly wanted people to look forward to these gatherings and not just show up out of duty. One day, the meeting started differently. The CEO opened the meeting by saying: “We spend a lot of time in these meetings, but I want to be sure that we spend the time we have together on what really matters. For this to happen, I propose that we consider the pre-read and agenda points as a backdrop and allow ourselves a few minutes to discuss and agree on what is the most important conversation for us in this moment?”.

The question created a short moment of surprise and silence, a moment of arriving for all attendants, a moment of individual reflection. The question was a courageous and vulnerable invitation to a real conversation, an invitation for all of us to jointly take responsibility for making this gathering meaningful so that we progress where we need to. The agenda becomes a suggestion for how to progress, twinned with an openness to pivot if something is more important in the moment. A beautiful question that leads to a real conversation.

The meeting proceeded and left the leadership group feeling connected with a sense of having talked about something important and having created something together as a team.

Leaders – never not in conversation

As humans, conversations are where we connect, where we make and create meaning together. And as a leader, you are never not in conversation.

Our work life can be seen as a series of conversations (verbal as well as nonverbal) every day. Meeting the eyes of a colleague at the coffee machine, a one-on-one touchpoint, a phone call, a team meeting, a board meeting, a performance review – they are all moments where we connect.

When we talk about a real conversation, it can be defined as:

An interaction where we (1) exchange, (2) engage in service of a worthy purpose and (3) create something together or progress.

While every touchpoint is an opportunity for real conversations, many workplace conversations fall short of their potential. Meetings are the most obvious places to have a real conversation – the time to plan ahead leaves us ample opportunity to think about how to engage.

In a survey of senior managers from across a range of industries, 7 out of 10 said that meetings are unproductive and inefficient, 6 out of 10 said that meetings come at the expense of deep thinking, and 6 out of 10 said that meetings miss opportunities to bring the team closer together1. 8 out of 10 leaders say that they have too many meetings, and 5 of 10 say that they take part in meetings that feel like a waste of time on a weekly basis.

For more than 15 years, we have explored the world of business transformation through the lens of conversations and explored real conversations as a key transformation enabler. And we have come to conclude that conversations are probably the smallest biggest thing in making transformation happen in organisations.

To catalyse transformation, we need for leaders to actively design the conversations needed to take us forward and learn to hold space for real conversations that multiply the capacity of others.

Designing catalytic conversations that move the organisation forward

In a survey of 200 senior executives from diverse industries, only 17% reported that their meetings are generally a productive use of group and individual time1. And the general notion across organisations is that meetings, especially recurrent meetings, should be accepted as they are despite being experienced as boring, repetitive or disengaging.

Our organisational culture manifests itself in our conversations, and poorly held conversations in key meetings will no doubt lead to disengagement, disempowerment and inefficiency. If we want our organisations to be engaging, empowering and efficient, then leaders (or any colleague who calls for a meeting) need to take responsibility for designing the conversation to achieve that outcome. Meetings at large should create agency rather than victimisation.

Leaders have a critical role in identifying the potentially iconic meetings that should and could define how we gather when at our best and redesign the key meetings that are somewhat broken.

We propose two places to start when it comes to designing conversations that can move an organisation forward: start with an iconic meeting, and start with a conversation that needs to stop.

How to get started 1: design and measure iconic meetings

Get started by identifying the few conversations that touch the many, where we can showcase how we want to gather when at our best, what kind of conversations we believe in, exemplifying how to leverage the wisdom of the crowd and leave people engaged. And then redesign these meetings to be the essence of what we aspire to be – make them generative, catalytic and iconic.

Examples could be onboarding events, monthly management meetings, biyearly large-scale gatherings, iconic leadership trainings, quarterly regional meetings – meetings that touch the many and where the opportunity of exceeding expectations might have a catalytic impact.

Just as much as iconic meetings can catalyse impact, toxic conversations can drain it. An alternative could be to look for a broken meeting and revitalise the conversation to bring back the sense of purpose or progress that is needed.

How to get started 2: stop a conversation

In every organisation, there will be conversations that need to stop to give space for the emergence of more relevant topics. These conversations do not necessarily take place in singular meetings but will be a topic, theme or way of being in conversations that shows up across many touchpoints.

Often, these conversations are relatively easy to identify. They hold us back from progressing and can be anything from toxic, cross-functional critique, corporate theatre masquerading as strategy, spending more time in meetings discussing the past and the internal than focusing on the future and the external.

An interesting experiment is to gather a few colleagues and ask “what conversations do we need to stop?”. The chance is that they will be widely in agreement quite fast. We all know, but we have not addressed this, either because we have not thought of conversations as significant leadership manifestations, or simply because we rarely look at organisations from a conversational lens or perspective.

Holding space for real conversations that multiply the capacity of others

At every touchpoint, we have a choice about what kind of invitation to conversation we make. Conversations are all about building human connection and attending to meaningful topics, and therefore, leaders must be equipped to consciously demonstrate how this is done across the organisation.

In a recent, global study conducted by Egon Zehnder, CEOs say that their biggest blind spot is “not listening” with “lacking empathy” and “communicating poorly” being among the other top scorers2. Many of our meetings are not real conversations even when the opportunity is there. When observing conversations in organisations, we clearly tend to “ping-pong” advocacy back and forth, exchanging opinions with only a small proportion of time spent curiously inquiring. In many meetings, we ask no questions, we prepare our next input while the others speak, we do not really listen, there is no real invitation to explore, we are not curious about what we do not see, we do not enter to gain insight and get wiser, and we do not create anything together.

Leaders are not trained in how to be in a real conversation where we ask beautiful questions and listen as an intimate act. For a real conversation to take place, we need to be courageous and trust that the conversation will do the work for us, let go of controlling the conversation and make friends with the unknown. We need to develop our situational awareness, our consciousness and ability to be in a conversation differently depending on context. But most importantly, we need to truly believe that we make better choices when exploring what others see that we do not and when we leverage the wisdom of the crowd.

Research shows that by the time we do the same task the third time, our engagement starts to drop, which is particularly contagious and toxic when we are talking gatherings because they touch the many. To get started, we need to get curious about how we could potentially be in conversation differently as humans, leaders, friends, parents and spouses and then start practicing and experimenting.

The “real conversations” 360

Take time to reflect upon the following five questions, and invite a few people that know you well to have a conversation on these – exchange reflections both ways:

  1. What level of invitation am I bringing to my conversations and meetings?
  2. To what extent am I consciously creating for real conversation in my meetings?
  3. What is the conversation that I need to stop?
  4. What are my strengths and challenges in creating real conversation?
  5. To what degree do I leave others with more energy in meetings and touchpoints?

We shape our conversations, and then they shape us

Forward-looking leaders role model real conversations – they view them as potential amplifiers for connection, meaning and progress. They see conversations as the space where change happens. They use conversations as acupuncture points to bring life and energy to a new strategy, process or initiative. They leverage the insight that change always has an element of changing conversations.

This is a call to action to proactively design and role model the conversations and meetings that take us where we want to go. To proactively identify and stop the conversations that are broken. To have the courage and vision to shape iconic conversations that demonstrate what we can do collectively when at our best.

Never has it been more important that we as leaders have the mindset and the skills to hold space for real conversations. For organisations to take a catalytic role in solving worthwhile problems, leaders need to think about and shape the conversations that push business as well as society forward. Inside our organisations, we need to shape real conversations and conditions that multiply the capacity of others and that invite everyone to act as a leader.

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