The topic of how to create the best conditions for a conversation has popped up a lot lately. It’s not something that I see in leadership and conversation literature, but it is absolutely crucial to a successful conversation.
So what makes a conversation successful? There are at least a couple of things. From a leadership perspective, we want to develop or enhance a positive relationship. Leadership is all about creating positive relationships. I promise that this does not mean we are going to be pushovers.
Second, we want to have a clear outcome in mind. If an employee has a grievance, our goal is to find a resolution. We do not want to decide ahead of time what the resolution will look like; that’s what the conversation is for. You can read more about holding onto your outcome here.
We know that the beginning of a conversation is important. Couples relationship expert John Gottman found in his research that conversations that start harshly will end harshly more than 90% of the time. Those percentages are a good incentive to pay attention to how we open a conversation.
The way to ensure that we begin well is to pay attention to our mindset before we go into a conversation. Intentionally or not, we bring certain qualities or perspectives with us when we start talking with someone. If I’m angry, I might bring an adversarial attitude. If it’s important to me to look smart, I could bring in a know-it-all mindset. In systems coaching, we call those metaskills, and neither of those examples is going to help create a positive relationship or achieve the desired outcome.
Deciding what metaskills to bring into a conversation is harder than it sounds. In workshops, I ask groups to come up with the qualities and mindset that would create the most helpful container for conversations with a blamer, a screamer, a cryer, a know-it-all, and a person with an excuse for everything. When I walk around the room at the beginning of their discussions, I hear things like, “They need to understand…” and “We have to make it clear…” They are not talking about metaskills; they are talking about how to get to the outcome before they’ve even started this imaginary conversation.
I stop the discussions and redirect them. I ask, “Who do you need to be in order to have a reasonable and productive conversation with these people?” In other words, what type of person do you need to be? Do you need to be a patient person? A calm person? An angry person? An impatient person?
They go back to their group discussions and come up with great lists of qualities. Each group has a different type of person, but their lists contain similar metaskills. They decide they would want to be kind, patient, calm, firm, open-minded, respectful, empathetic, and professional. Being a person with those qualities will help them to have a reasonable conversation because they are creating a supportive container for the conversation. The qualities we embody are the metaskills that create the container.
Several clients have reported amazing outcomes from this practice. One told the story of facing a conversation with an employee who was angry about being passed over for a promotion. She took a minute and thought of how the employee must feel – angry, disappointed, and frustrated. He was entitled to feel that way. Although the decision was a fair one, it didn’t take away the sting of rejection.
My client’s normal style was to meet anger with anger. Instead, she met the employee’s anger with empathy and said things like, “Yes, I can understand why you are upset.” It was not the response the employee was expecting! He was expecting a good row! Instead, his anger dissipated, and the conversation turned to things that he could do to improve his chances next time around. By changing the container for the conversation, my client changed the entire tenor and outcome.
It’s important to note that kindness and firmness are not mutually exclusive. We can hold people accountable in a firm way and also be kind. It’s easy if we truly have the other person’s best interests at heart. Exceptional leaders know that their success is dependent on the success of everyone around them, which means they hold high standards and help people meet them. The best leaders know that figuring out how to meet goals and standards is a dialogue that happens best in a conversation container of respect and a true desire for others’ success.