learning & change

Key Conversations

Skillful dialogue around the issues that matter most

Dysfunctional interactions not only have a negative effect on the people involved but over time they can set the scene for a toxic organisational culture. Every manager needs a way to negotiate these moments of truth effectively. This post looks at how we can engage in key conversations to solve problems, influence results and enhance relationships along the way.

UnityAs managers we interact with people every day. A percentage of these conversations relate to things that are business critical. They touch on topics linked to achieving important organisational results. Some conversations go better than others. When things don’t go well we can be left with sense of missed opportunity, lingering regret or worse still anger, disappointment or sadness. Not only this, but these dysfunctional interactions have a negative effect on the performance of your people, the team and the organisation as a whole.

We understand some of these topics are particularly sensitive and the other people involved can be incredibly difficult to deal with, but the impact of avoiding key conversations is too great to accept.

For the purpose of this article we define Key Conversations as ‘any discussion between two or more people where the stakes are high, opinions differ and emotions run hot’.

Every manager needs a way to effectively hold these conversations to solve problems, influence results and enhance relationships.  Here are 5 principles that can help you get better results from key conversations as they arise.

Choose TRUE Goals

Before engaging in a Key Conversation we need to begin with the end in mind. This means taking the time to honestly ask ourselves what we want to achieve as a result of the discussion.

At their best, Key Conversations are open dialogues where people add their thoughts and views to increase the pool of shared meaning. If we are unclear about our intentions upfront this is never going to happen.

When we feel threatened we can default to protective goals that breakdown dialogue and derail our interactions. Protective goals include saving face, avoiding embarrassment, winning, being right or punishing others.

Choosing TRUE Goals is about understanding what outcomes you want in terms of content and relationship and then having the courage to overcome any protective goals that crop up.

Stay on TRACK

When we are in the heat of the moment it is easy to become unraveled and lose track of how we want things to go. We can blur facts with opinions, get on a roll and completely overlook the important points of seeking agreement and deciding actions.

Having a loose structure to guide your conversation can help keep you on TRACK. It reminds us to isolate the observable issues from assumptions and perception, but also prompts us to genuinely share our story or view of events. Key Conversations that stay on TRACK help to establish mutual purpose and allow for tentative testing of strategies.  Once parties agree it guides and encourages a commitment to action.

Keep it SAFE

Key Conversations can spark creativity and enrich relationships, but if handled poorly the opposite can happen. When individuals feel threatened the walls go up and the dialogue stops.

It is natural to want to protect ourselves from threatening situations, but this behaviour can sound a death knell to a successful interaction.

As managers we have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for our people. We need the skills to spot the warnings signs that others are feeling threatened and the courage to step outside of the content to address the issue positively.

The primary way to keep conversations SAFE is to openly seek a mutual purpose. This is an outcome that all parties can get behind. It can take some effort to reframe the issue to make it work, but if your intent is strong then it is possible.

Sometimes people will react negatively to particular strategies or behaviours. We need to be able to hit rewind and separate the unwanted strategy from the positive mutual purpose and then work together to find new ideas to move forward.

COMMIT to Dialogue

Recognising the warning signs that others are feeling threatened is only one side of the coin. We need to be able to spot when our buttons are getting pushed and we feel like disengaging from the conversation.

Sometimes emotional responses stem out of faulty scripts or stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the situation. We need the insight to recognise unhelpful behaviours and track them back to these broken stories. Once we understand the cause we can then refocus ourselves on the facts so that we stay in the dialogue.

MOVE to Action

Once we have told the facts, recounted our story, asked for opinions, conferred and discussed we need to key in the action. Understanding that Key Conversations are generally about change is an important point. Talk without action can diminish credibility and dilute trust so as managers we need ways to prompt action.

Decision making tools that are based on the foundations of alignment, engagement and agreement help leaders to MOVE their Key Conversation to action.

These five principles and the tools that sit beneath them provide a foundation and framework that can help you to improve your interactions and get better results from your Key Conversations.

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