When Conversations Get Crucial

When Conversations Get Crucial

What is a crucial conversation? One description, the one used in this article, is that it is “a discussion between two or more people where stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong”.

It is this combination of high stakes, differing opinions and strong emotions which makes handling crucial conversations so difficult, because these are all factors likely to cause us to feel threatened, and which can therefore engage our ego:

  • Another very visible trait of the ego is the desire to be right. The more opinions differ, the greater the challenge of ‘winning’ the argument will seem – another ego loss. As a result, just when the best strategy would be to listen more, we are much more likely to listen less, expending our effort instead on an internal dialogue where we try to figure out how to defeat the arguments of (what feel like) the “opposition”.
  • As emotions get cranked up, key brain functions – those linked to our ability to think rationally, behave amenably and connect with others emotionally – start to shut down. Whenever this occurs, egoic behaviours become stronger and our desire to ‘win’ gets ramped up even further.
  • The ego gains a great deal of significance from the things that we have. Therefore, when threatened with the perceived loss of things of importance to us, the ego will be quick to flare up.

This article offers four strategies to help you to improve your ability to handle crucial conversations through a combination of understanding and managing yourself better and learning to deal with others in a more productive manner.

Read the Article: Mastering Crucial Conversations

My Advice

It is a neurological reality, that when the threat centre of our brain is activated it suppresses the ‘executive centre’, which is based in our pre-frontal cortex. This part is responsible for all of the higher capabilities that enable us to function in the modern world, such as our ability to focus attention, to recognise and manage our own emotions, to feel empathy for others, to be creative and to analyse problems and make rational decisions. Since all of these factors described in the bullets above promote fight/flight reactivity, literally narrowing our peripheral vision and triggering the dumb, automatic, part of our brain to take over, it is inevitable that our capacity for powerful dialogue becomes limited just when we need it the most.

To address this problem, one of the easiest things we can do to is to focus on our very natural tendency to plan what to say next while others are still talking. This kind of internal focus will tend to put us in opposition to others, producing a negative impact on them because it threatens their own desire to be right. Even the word “oppose” implicitly introduces the sense that the other person wants to challenge us or to win over us. A simple technique, therefore, which can help in reducing feelings of opposition is to change the focus of your listening:

Instead of listening with the intention of producing a killer reply, focus on listening to understand.

By changing our own intention in this way, we can reduce the feeling of conflict that is at the heart of many breakdowns. The more we focus on understanding how other people’s ideas might add to the collective awareness of the situation, the more they are likely to feel valued and respected. This in turn helps to create feelings of safety for them, turning what was a vicious cycle into a virtuous and supportive one.

Empathetic Listening is a Gift

Empathetic Listening is a Gift

Listening, deeply listening, is probably much harder than you think. This is because real listening is not about hearing what is spoken – it is about understanding the speaker. It is about picking up was isn’t said, as well as what is.

One of my favourite statistics is that 93% of people think they are above-average drivers. I wonder if their self-assessment of how well they listen is much better… In Steven Sample’s book, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, he includes both of these areas when he suggests that the average person suffers from three delusions: 1) that s/he is a good driver, 2) that s/he has a good sense of humour and 3) that s/he is a good listener. From my own observation, it seems that few people are anywhere near reaching their potential in terms of how well they listen. The reason, I believe, is that to listen fully we also have to quiet the voice in our head, and that is not so easy.

Even when only two people are involved, there will nearly always be three conversations taking place: the obvious, audible, external one, between the two parties, and the two silent, internal ones taking place in each of their heads. Often, we listen to the other person only until something they say triggers a thought, at which point our self-talk kicks in as we mentally prepare what we will say next. In other words, conversations actually have three elements:

  • Listening.

  • Preparing to speak.

  • Speaking.

Many people I’ve discussed this with, both in one-on-one coaching and workshop environments, have confirmed that preparing to speak consumes a significant proportion of their attention. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, and there are important issues at stake, such as how others are likely to react to our ideas, whether they will create a good impression of our capabilities and how to phrase them for greatest impact. But let’s be clear: if you are framing a response when the other is speaking, you are not listening!

This article describes some of the factors that make listening such a powerful leadership behaviour, as well as some simple principles that will help you to listen more effectively.

Read the Article: Here’s How Great Leaders Listen to and Understand Their Team

My Advice

I like to think of empathy as the lifeblood of listening: the essential ingredient for dealing with people effectively in any setting. Empathetic listening goes much deeper than what is normally referred to as “active listening”, because it requires that we seek to understand not only the content and context, but also the emotions of the speaker. It is not enough to simply attempt to put yourself in another’s shoes – a common way for people to think about empathy – because this will tell you only how you might feel under the same conditions. The question that must be addressed is how the situation makes the other person feel.

To address this challenge, the unexpected capability required turns out to be our imagination. While it is clearly impossible for any of us to completely know or understand what anyone else is experiencing, we can strive to imagine what something might be like, or feel, for another. When we intuit what they may be feeling, a deeper level of connection with them is created which can transform both our impact and the quality of our overall relationships.

The key enablers to this kind of empathetic listing are focused, non-judgmental, attention and the power of silence… When we place this quality of quiet attention on another person and hold it there, putting aside things like ego, judgement, pre-existing views, ideas, and agendas, it conveys to them that they are important and cared for. Doing so also requires that we drop the pressure on ourselves to have the smartest, or fastest, response and to listen with our ears, eyes and heart. I suggest two quick mental checks before even engaging in conversation, which will help you to get into a listening mode:

  • Deliberately set your intention to fully understand the other person.

  • Literally stop anything else you may be doing and consciously direct your full psychological presence towards them in the form of your undivided attention.

If you do this well, it is incredible how great an impact it can create. I have had experiences that have stayed with me for almost 40 years for no other reason. When we receive this type of empathetic listening, it truly is a gift.

Leaders Who Give, Gain

Leaders Who Give, Gain

There’s no doubt that the people who work for you are much more likely to give their best if they, emotionally, choose you to lead them. One way of achieving this was highlighted by a fascinating study conducted at the University of Kent.

The research was based around a “cooperation game”, in which a group of participants were each given a small amount of money and invited to use it to make a contribution to a common fund. The fund was then doubled in value and shared equally between all members of the group.

This experiment cleverly confronted participants with a common dilemma:

  1. Cooperate with the collective interest by continually reinvesting their money, thereby maximising the overall gains, or…
  2. Act selfishly, by holding back some of their money, which maximises personal gain at the expense of others.

Thriving businesses need maximal cooperation, yet, as the experiment showed, there are always people who prefer option 2. It also demonstrated just how critical it is that leaders don’t fall into this trap! In the second phase of the experiment, participants were divided into teams and each was asked to elect a leader. They found that:

82% of the leaders elected were those who had given the most during the first phase.

The study showed that the act of giving is recognised as a leadership quality, and that this is true even if that person is a complete stranger.

This article provides helpful advice to anyone seeking to give more. It warns, for example, that while givers may be the best performers, they can also be the worst, and why this happens. It also identifies six different profiles of generosity, to help you to understand where your skills and interests may fit most naturally, and highlights the danger of going too far and giving too much of yourself!

Read the Article: The Power of Giving

My Advice

“The greatest gift is a portion of thyself.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

When we give, it says to others that we are seeking to serve; it shows that we are interested in placing their interests ahead of our own; it demonstrates that we are willing to invest in their world, not just our own. Perhaps it is unsurprising then, that when people witness us to be givers, they will see us as a leader.

Please remember that the power of generosity will not enhance your leadership if applied as a technique. If you fall into the trap of giving in order to get something, that is NOT influence, it is manipulation. To unlock the power of giving, it must be done authentically, without expectation of return. It is about being, not doing.

You Can Buy Hands, but Hearts Must be Won

You Can Buy Hands, but Hearts Must be Won

Employee engagement is much more than a simple buzz phrase or management fad – most would now readily accept that it’s a fundamental requirement for high performance. Yet, despite its critical importance, Gallup and others continue to report abysmal levels of positive engagement among employees (typically only 15-20%), and the UK is one of the poorest performers. Worse, these stats aren’t improving, even as awareness of the importance of this subject grows.

Why is this, and what can be done to improve matters?

A great starting point for building engagement is to ensure that your team feels valued and valuable. To this end, perhaps surprisingly, high-profile, public appearances in the work environment don’t help much. This goal is much better achieved through daily interactions, by taking opportunities to build trust and to affirm people in the small moments of their everyday lives. The more personal the connection, the more strongly it will convey that you care, and the deeper its impact will be.

I know of no role model whose example better conveys the transformative power of this approach than General Earl Hailston, the commander of Marine Forces Central Command during the second Gulf War. On 5th March 2003, less than 2 weeks before the invasion began, he and his troops were fully prepared for battle. That day, during an interview with Good Morning America, he was asked about his love of photography. He recounted that, as he travelled around, he would take photos of his men, then at night he’d email the photos with a brief note to their parents back in the USA. When asked if he had a sample of one of his letters, he turned on his computer and read the last letter he had sent. It said:

Dear Mrs. Johnson,

I thought you might enjoy seeing this picture of your son. He is doing great. I also wanted you to know that you did a wonderful job raising him.

You must be very proud. I can certainly tell you that I’m honored to serve with him in the U.S. Marines.


General Earl Hailston

Saddled with such enormous responsibility, many a leader becomes lost in the challenges of the task. General Hailston’s behaviour highlights something that all great leaders know: under the most pressured of circumstances, it is more important, not less, to remember the people. I doubt you’ll be surprised to learn that every one of General Hailston’s men was committed to the cause in a way that money could never have achieved. That level of respect and caring gets noticed, and it wins hearts.

The personal, human touch makes all the difference…

This article demonstrates that this type of approach is equally valuable in business. Doug Conant was already among the food manufacturing industry elite before he became the CEO at Campbell Soup Company, having held senior executive positions at General Mills and Kraft, and been President of Nabisco Foods. When he took the reins at Campbell, the company was at rock bottom in terms of both market results and employee engagement. I love the story of how, armed with a pen, paper, walking shoes and a pedometer, he was able to change the former by working on the latter. Who said effective leadership needs to be complicated?

Read the Article: How Campbell’s Soup’s Former CEO Turned the Company Around

My Advice

To gain the discretionary effort of your team, a simple method is to seek to demonstrate that you are personally committed to making their lives better. This occurs in the moment to moment interactions you have with them, which build trust and engagement over time. In other words, the action is in the interaction.

I recommend that you try to see every interaction, including interruptions, as a golden opportunity to build human connections with others. Also, seek to recognise contributions on a regular basis, which adds to employees’ sense that they are valued. It is the stacking and layering of these small moments that strengthens communication, enhances collaboration, and cements commitment.