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"The art of communication is the language of leadership." James Hume

Conversation is the fuel that drives organizations. Nothing - nothing - gets done without it. Work is completed by, and through, our interactions with other people. We can engage in conversations that limit our efficacy, and our bottom-line results. Or we can communicate with purpose and thrive even in the midst of challenge. The difference? Implementing, and living, a conversational code of conduct.

Conversational Capacity

In Conversational Capacity: The Secret to Building Successful Teams that Perform When the Pressure Is On, Craig Weber writes: [C]onversational capacity is the ability to have, open, balanced, non-defensive dialogues... A team with high conversational capacity can keep its performance on track, productively addressing even its most difficult and contentious issues."

And if this capacity is too low? "Even if a team is staffed with skilled people who trust, like, and respect one another, and even if they have all the technical pieces in place - strategy, structure, processes, and policies - the team still won't perform...."

A conversational code of conduct is key to improving this capacity. Like any other code, it starts on the bedrock of respect. If you do not have, and give, respect to the other person - to their identity, their ideas and opinions, their experiences - it is virtually impossible to engage in a meaningful conversation. With that foundation in place, you can begin to build the necessary structure for effective communication. How?

Code-Compliant Conversations

Having productive, respective conversations can be easier said than done, no pun intended. You can begin to solidify a code by:

  • Becoming Fundamentally Different. David Friedman, author of Fundamentally Different and C.E.O. Tribe contributor, spent decades working with companies that succeeded phenomenally and those that failed dismally. The difference, he discovered, was that the former were able to align their stated values and observable behavior. They don't just say that they listen generously; they listen generously. They don't just say they will honor commitments; they honor them.

    Friedman's 30 fundamentals relate to how people within effective organizations behave. Since many of our behaviors are conversations, intertwined in this book are the elements of a sound conversational code of conduct. Being fundamentally different encompasses conversing in a fundamentally different way.

  • I vs. You Statements. You walk into my office, and I start in. "You should have..." "You need to do this now," "What you have to understand is..." "You need to get this right."

    How much do you like me right now? It's ok, I can take it. But "you" statements with a directive - e.g. You need to do this now - come across as negative, judgemental, threatening, intimidating, or just plain mean. Those who hear it become defensive and resentful.

    "I" statements, on the other hand, turn it around; it puts the emphasis or responsibility on you. "What's wrong with you? You didn't give me the report on time" becomes, "I'm stressed because I don't have the report I need to prepare for my meeting." That can make all the difference when it comes to results.

  • Avoiding personal attacks. Employing "you" can become an attack in itself, even if a "soft" one. People don't generally enjoy being told what they believe, what they think, or what you think they need to do. The more you can stay within your own opinions and perspective - and express them without telling the other person what to think, say, or do - the better the conversational outcome.

  • Employ guided and open-ended conversations. Knowing when to engage in which type of conversation is important. For example, if you are working towards a specific outcome and know what information you need to arrive there, a guided question is more effective. You essentially have an "agenda," and ask the types of questions that help you reach your result. Yes, No, Tuesday. There is a clear answer.

    On the other hand, if you want to find out what a person things or what they feel, if you're looking for new ideas, then an open-ended conversation provides a better route. You ask questions that elicit more than a simple "yes" or "no."

    In some cases, when you reach your destination in a guided conversation, you can branch off into a more open-ended dialogue to add depth to the topic or gain additional insight.

    While every conversation should be grounded in respect, not every one needs to take 20 minutes of your time. Short and succinct certainly has a place in your code of conduct, as does in-depth. It's up to you to determine when each is appropriate and allocate your time and resources accordingly.

When it comes down to it, the success of our organizations depends on conversations. A conversational code of conduct can help you establish cultural norms for communication and develop your capacity to converse with respect, and with results.


Larry Hart

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