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Building Your Conversational Capacity


“The ability to have constructive, learning-focused dialogue under pressure is critical right now,” says bestselling business author Craig Weber. “In our rapidly changing world, everyone’s scrambling to figure out how to work together in this new context. How do we work together in a virtual environment? How do we provide valuable service to our customers? What does the future hold, and how do we prepare for it?”

Weber explains that because collaborative learning is a core skill in the future of work, being able to engage in learning-focused conversations is more important than ever. We need to focus on building our own conversational capacity and that of our teams.

Weber describes conversational capacity as the ability—either as an individual or a team—to have constructive and learning-focused dialogue about difficult subjects in challenging circumstances and across tough boundaries.

“I’ve been talking to a lot of CEOs, executives, and managers about this challenge: How do you lead in a way that increases your team’s ability to work together effectively in this new atmosphere?”  

It’s harder than it sounds, says Weber.

“The problem is that nothing lowers conversational capacity more predictably than the presence of authority. When the boss is around, people are more guarded, more careful, and more cautious in how they participate in meetings and conversations. So when an authority figure is in the room, their presence alone, much less their behaviour, often limits their team’s ability to bring their best thinking and ideas to the table. Effective leaders, therefore, know how to participate in conversations in a way that lifts the conversational capacity of their team.”

That means ramping up your curiosity as a leader and being more genuinely interested in how other people see things—especially when their perceptions differ from your own.

“This is a critical leadership competence,” explains Weber. “It requires you to be intellectually humble so you’re not walking into a meeting thinking you have all the answers. Instead, you’re like anybody else—walking in with ideas that you want to bounce off the team, eager to hear from people who see things differently. As one CEO put it: ‘My job is to be right at the end of the meeting, not at the beginning.’

“Building your conversational capacity requires a clear focus on learning, getting smarter, and thinking more clearly. You listen to people who see the world in contrasting ways. But mere exposure isn’t enough. Our differences only facilitate clearer thinking and smarter choices if we have a bias for learning that is greater than our natural defensiveness to new and conflicting ideas. To learn from diverse perspectives, we need the discipline—the conversational capacity—to approach conversations with differently-minded people as opportunities to spark an ‘aha’ moment. It’s the exhilarating experience of having a blind spot in our mental map of reality suddenly illuminated.”

That’s an important mindset right now, says Weber.

“With conversational capacity, a team of people can put their most difficult, painful issue on the table and do really good work around it. Otherwise, the team’s performance can be derailed by a minor difference of opinion.

“With high conversational capacity, we’re able to converse in that sweet spot where candour and curiosity are balanced. When this happens, people are talking in an open, no-nonsense way, but with lots of curiosity. They are open-minded, inquisitive, and eager to learn. It is within this balanced place that great conversations and highly effective teamwork occur.”

“The world is changing in unpredictable ways, so we need to build our ability to adapt as we go. If organisations are going to succeed in this new world of work, they need higher levels of engagement so that people can bring their best ideas to the challenges at hand,” says Weber.

“The ability to learn with others even in the most challenging circumstances is an increasingly pivotal skill. Developing your own conversational capacity, and that of your team, project, or organisation, is the key to doing this well.”

About the author:

David Witt

David Witt is a Program Director for The Ken Blanchard Companies. He is an award-winning researcher and host of the companies’ monthly webinar series. David has also authored or coauthored articles in Fast CompanyHuman Resource Development ReviewChief Learning Officer and US Business Review.

First published on Leaderchat
29 June 2020