Want to be a better leader? Focus on your conversations

We are busy and sometimes we forget to slow down so we can be intentional about the conversations that matter. When we do have a moment to prepare for that meeting or that interaction we are about to have, we will often focus on the “how to” … how to set the agenda, how to ask the right question, or how to get to the decision. 

All of those things are important and necessary, so let’s also add a “secret ingredient” to make it an even better conversation. What is that ingredient? You. Great conversations are made when you bring your full self to the relationship that is in front of you in that moment.  

Jane was new to her role with lots of ideas as the new project lead. Jerry had invested himself in the project over the last six months and wondered if he had a place in the changes. Jane had high esteem for Jerry’s expertise, so she kept dropping in his office and sharing more ideas, thinking he was getting as excited as she. Instead his fears grew as he didn’t see himself in the ideas. They had lots of conversations, but Jerry never knew that Jane was trying to include him and Jane never knew that every conversation was causing Jerry to back down even more. It’s not just the content or structure of the conversation, it’s the ever deepening relationship that sets the stage for powerful conversations.

 “A true leader has to use the transformative power of face-to-face conversations in his everyday work to build connections, influence, encourage people and learn from them.” 

Alessandro Guerrini

When people feel respected and heard in the conversation they are free to share what they might otherwise hold back. You may be surprised by the deeper needs or motivations that emerge and the ideas or solutions that the conversational environment you just created can fuel. What kind of experience are you creating for people in conversation with you? How can you be seen as a “conversational leader”?

Creating a meaningful experience in conversation requires great skills embedded in a mindset that considers these three things:

Listening without directing.

We all have lenses through which we listen that lead us to make different kinds of judgments. Jane’s lens was that people are motivated by ideas. But, Jerry wasn’t. Sharing ideas is a great conversation, however a better one is embedded into listening and creating an experience that invites others to share and lets them know that you want to hear without judgment or the advice that tends to follow.

Engaging different perspectives. 

Listen for views that are different from your own and acknowledge them. Give voice to them and see what shifts in your own thinking when you do. Imagine yourself in their situation. Picture what they might be experiencing. Notice what changes or shifts in your understanding of the situation or their perspective when you do.

Observe yourself in conversation.

Think about the experience you are creating. Does it have the potential to increase trust? Ask for feedback from others about how they experience you. Take note of body language or conversations where people are stepping back as you speak and observe your words, actions, or tone of voice that might influence that.

Turn off the autopilot so that you can be in the moment responding to the needs of the other person. Be fully present. It is bringing your full self into that conversation that creates an experience that builds trust and connection. 

Next Steps

  1. Think of a conversation. It doesn’t even have to be a hard one. Any conversation you are about to have with a team member or someone you work closely with. What would you incorporate if you want to be seen more as a conversational leader?
  2. Plan ahead. Decide one way you could demonstrate being the conversational leader approach in that conversation. 
  3. Give a heads up. Be transparent and let them know what you are trying when it comes to your conversations.
  4. Ask for feedback. Check in and ask what the conversation was like for them. 

Find out more about becoming a conversational leader in this week’s episode on the Side by Side Podcast with Mary Verstraete of the Center for Coaching Excellence


Annie Perdue Olson

Annie is founder of Leading Better Together, guiding leaders through the relationship and people challenges that sidetrack ministry. With 20+ years of experience in nonprofit management and pastoral ministry she equips people and teams to work better together. She holds a Master of Arts in Human Resources and Change Leadership from St. Thomas University and received her coaching certification from the Center for Coaching Excellence.

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