In my previous article I wrote about the conversational “sweet spot” that unlocks team performance. The sweet spot is defined as the balance of candor and curiosity in team discussions. It’s a reflection of a team’s Conversational Capacity® – the ability to have open, balanced, non-defensive dialogue about tough subjects and in challenging circumstances.
Teams that have a high conversational capacity know how to stay in the sweet spot. The sweet spot is where dialogue flows freely, people share their input willingly, and listen to the feedback of others without judgment. Good work happens in the sweet spot.
Teams with a low conversational capacity frequently get pulled away from the sweet spot. When a tough topic arises, some people heat up while others shut down. Some people dominate the discussion while others don’t say a peep. Sometimes the conversation turns argumentative and nothing gets accomplished, or if a decision is reached, it’s often forced upon people and there is collateral damage of hurt feelings and damaged relationships. Good work isn’t possible when the team is pulled out of the sweet spot.
The challenge, of course, is getting and keeping your team’s conversations in the sweet spot. There are two primary factors that pull us away from the sweet spot and lower our conversational capacity: fight and flight.
When faced with challenging and tense situations, the human brain is programmed to respond in two basic ways. One is to fight, engage with the threat, and try to exert control over the situation. In team conversations this response is manifested in “win” behavior. We argue, try to dominate the discussion, discount the input of others, or even refuse to listen to their viewpoints. When we let winning behaviors take over, we become less curious in other peoples’ perspectives. That pulls us, and the team, out of the sweet spot and lowers our conversational capacity to reach better and higher quality outcomes.
Flight is a second way our brains respond to threatening and stressful situations. We want to remove ourselves from the situation, whether that’s physically, mentally, or emotionally. In team conversations this response is manifested in “minimize” behaviors. Examples of minimizing behaviors include shutting down, not contributing, discounting our value or opinions, avoiding conflict, or offering half-hearted, wishy-washy viewpoints to avoid upsetting others. When we minimize, we reduce the amount of candor in the team conversation, thereby pulling us away from the sweet spot.
Imagine a sliding scale with “minimize” on the left and “win” on the right. When you think of your natural response to difficult team conversations, where would you place yourself on that scale? Do you tend to become less curious and try to “win” the conversation by exerting control, dominating the discussion, and convincing others of your position? Or do you tend to become less candid, not share your true thoughts and feelings, and acquiesce to those who are trying to win? The goal, obviously, is to stay in the sweet spot by balancing the amount of candor and curiosity in the discussion. In a future article I will share specific skills you can develop to reduce your tendency to minimize or win and boost your ability to stay candid and curious. After all, the sweet spot is where good work happens!