Great leadership needs conversational dexterity

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Different conversations are central to strong leadership. At the Listening Partnership we call it ‘Conversational Dexterity’. Conversations are essential to organisations, and that means having a good breadth and depth of conversational competence then applying it deftly in different situations. No wonder great conversational skills form such a vital part of a strong leader’s repertoire.

Different conversations are the bedrock of all relationships, whether it’s friendships, partnerships, marriages, families or organisations. The quality of these conversations matter. Some of us, even if we don’t openly admit it, could do with some practical help when it comes to holding different types of conversation. We do some conversations well, but we either avoid or bungle others, usually because we have to grapple with overcoming rejection or deal with the fear of looking silly. Sometimes we feel totally stumped because we’re not quite sure which conversational approach will work in the circumstances we face. This is just human nature, and it’s understandable. But at the same time genuinely strong leadership requires real dexterity in holding a range of different conversations.

The Cambridge Dictionary describes a conversation as, “a talk between two or more people in which thoughts, feelings, and ideas are expressed, questions are asked and answered, or news and information is exchanged”. The thing is, conversations today encompass multiple diverse ways of interacting and exchanging information. The styles and mediums of conversational dialogue are growing fast, both one-to-one and in groups. Email, phone, Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook, Facetime, Skype, Zoom and all sorts of social media complement the once-simple directness of face to face conversations, and leaders need even more wisdom and skill if they want to hold conversations that work across them all.

Different conversations are foundational to business success

Organisations are simply collections of people placed in a relationship to serve a purpose, to create accumulated capital within the system. There are different types of capital: human, monetary, institutionally and conversational. When strong, coherent conversations happen they foster good relationships, serve their purpose, and build different forms of capital. Organisations exist because of the relationships people forge with their colleagues, customers, clients, supporters and stakeholders. Relationships are part of a web of intricate conversations, which in turn means conversational dexterity is one of the keys to business success.

But just because it’s foundational, universal and ubiquitous, it doesn’t mean that any of us really recognise the centrality of effective conversations. Neither do we completely understand the art of holding lots of different conversations well. This is risky, because it’s something that the health of an organisation depends directly upon.

As Harvard Professor Boris Groysberg and his colleague Michael Slind observe in the Harvard Business Review in 2012

“Globalization, new technologies, and changes in how companies create value and interact with customers have sharply reduced the efficacy of a purely directive, top-down model of leadership. What will take the place of that model? Part of the answer lies in how leaders manage communication within their organizations— that is, how they handle the flow of information to, from, and among their employees. Traditional corporate communication must give way to a process that is more dynamic and more sophisticated. Most important, that process must be conversational.”

Leaders need to develop a range of dynamic, sophisticated conversations

Increasingly, leaders can’t afford to leave good conversations to chance. They need to become more purposeful, more active, and take responsibility for creating positive conversations of every type if they want to manage and lead their organisations effectively.

Photo by Nik MacMillan

Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind say that leaders who are on the ball will engage others in ways that are deeply conversational. They believe ordinary person-to-person conversations are essential, and work far more effectively than simply giving out directives and commands from above. This way of working soon embeds into an organisation’s culture, and conversational dexterity becomes the norm.

Groysberg and Slind go further. Through their research they discovered that exceptional leaders seem to engage people in ways that foster four key characteristics, which in turn create the conditions for those involved to feel appreciated, valued and respected, and leave them feeling more than just empowered, namely intimacy, interactivity, inclusion, and intentionality. These four conversation-based elements reinforce each other and join together to form an integrated process, and exceptional leaders intentionally foster these sorts of conversations:

“CONVERSATION GOES on in every company, whether you recognize it or not. That has always been the case, but today the conversation has the potential to spread well beyond your walls, and it’s largely out of your control. Smart leaders find ways to use conversation—to manage the flow of information in an honest, open fashion. One-way broadcast messaging is a relic, and slick marketing materials have as little effect on employees as they do on customers. But people will listen to communication that is intimate, interactive, inclusive, and intentional.”

Conversations affect brain chemistry

As Judith Glaser, an Organizational Anthropologist and the author of Conversational Intelligence (Bibliomotion, 2013)

“To get to the next level of Greatness depends on the Quality of our culture, which depends on the quality of our relationships, which depends on the quality of our Conversations.”

In her world conversations are powerful because they alter our brain chemistry, either evoking fight or flight hormones and pushing people to react from their amygdala, or releasing oxytocin and shifting people to react with their prefrontal cortex.

The amygdala, insula, and orbital frontal cortex are mammalian-evolved brain functions associated with strong emotion, the gut feeling that something is wrong. The executive centre is situated in the lateral prefrontal cortex and connects three major centers of the mind and their associated brain regions. This is the human-evolved brain function, associated with deferred gratification, goal-directed responses and planning, the part that says you should do what is most needed.

The brain’s executive function – Taking the high road or the low road.

All this leads to what Jeffrey Schwartz, Josie Thomson, and Art Kleiner call ‘Low Road’ and ‘High Road’ responses in their article The Neuroscience of Strategic Leadership.

Conversations alter brains, either evoking Low Road or High Road responses. The Low Road comes from brain circuits and generates patterns of mental activity involved in meeting challenges immediately in the most expedient way. The High Road comes from the lateral prefrontal cortex and is the brain’s executive centre. It draws upon working memory and autobiographical memory, holding information so your conscious attention can work with it. Every meaningful aspiration, long-term plan, perspective, capacity you have to see things from multiple perspectives, serious psychological flexibility and significant reflection comes from activity in the executive centre, the part of the brain that brings self-regulation and inhibits habitual and impulsive behaviors.

The historian Theodore Zeldin concurs, saying, “Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards, it creates new ones”. Indeed, he thinks good conversations are the basis of all civilisation.

Distributed leadership requires conversational expertise

In this era of distributed leadership every leader needs to know how to hold high road conversations, and engage and influence others through them. Where the dialogue and interactions, as Zeldin suggests, contribute to systematically changing the participants in the conversation, results will be achieved and progress made.

The future of organisations depends on the quality of our conversations as leaders. But all of us, in one-to-one and group interactions, need to pay better attention to who we engage, how we engage with them, when we do it and to what purpose, something that’s an important underlying leadership strategy. How we communicate with others and the conversations we initiate or respond to will matter immensely, more than ever before. In fact our success as leaders may well depend on the very quality of the conversations we hold.

Enhance your conversational skills

Most leaders benefit from developing a raft of different conversational styles. Relevant, skilled conversational bandwidth is a learned competence, and one that needs to be practiced. If you’d like to develop your leadership effectiveness and polish up your conversational dexterity, contact us.