In my last two articles, I’ve explored the concept of a team’s Conversational Capacity®. Conversational capacity is 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 candor and curiosity are in balance. Dialogue flows freely, people share their input willingly, and listen to the feedback of others without judgment. Good work happens in 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. The fight reaction shows itself in team communication when people engage in “win” behavior. They argue, try to dominate conversation, discount the input of others, or even refuse to listen to alternative viewpoints. The flight reaction is manifested when team members “minimize” their contributions. They shut down, don’t offer their ideas, discount their own opinions, avoid conflict, or offer half-hearted, wishy-washy viewpoints to avoid upsetting others. Both tendencies, win and minimize, pull a team away from the communication sweet spot and lower the team’s overall capacity to have productive conversations. Fortunately, there are four skills we can learn and develop to counteract our tendencies to win or minimize.
Testing and Inquiring
Let’s look at how to tame our desire to win. Since winning behavior results from a drop in curiosity, we need to learn how to become more curious about the perspectives of others. We do that by learning and using the skills of testing and inquiring. We test our perspective and inquire into the perspective of others.
What does it look like to test our perspective? It looks like holding our viewpoint as a hypothesis to be tested, rather than a truth to be proven. A simple way to do this is to ask questions that invite others to examine our viewpoint: What’s your take on this issue? How do you feel about what I’m suggesting? How do you see this from your angle? Is there a better way to make sense of this? I know I don’t have it all figured out, so what am I missing?
The skill of inquiring involves drawing the thinking of others into the conversation. It’s not just asking a few questions to invite their input, but rather delving into the rationale and thinking other people bring to the topic at hand. It’s the process of asking as many questions as necessary to get the other person’s view into the pool of information being considered. The goal of inquiry isn’t agreement, it’s understanding. Sample inquiries include: Tell me more about why you believe that? Can you provide a couple examples that illustrate your point? Help me understand how you reached that conclusion. Testing and inquiring raise your level of curiosity and combat your tendency to win.
Stating a Clear Position and Explaining Your Thinking
Let’s look at our tendency to minimize. Minimizing results from a drop in candor; we aren’t openly and confidently sharing our viewpoints with the team. To increase our candor, we can use the skills of stating our clear position and explaining our thinking.
Stating our position is like a clear topic sentence in a paragraph. It’s clear, candid, and concise, and can be communicated in one sentence, or no more than two. I think we should invest the funds in project X. Option 2 gives us the best chance for success. We should disband the team and use the resources elsewhere. It sounds simple, but just think about how often you fail you exercise this skill. Too often we beat around the bush, inadvertently hide our point in a convoluted story, or soften our opinion to prevent disagreement with others. When we fail to state a clear position, we open the door to misunderstanding and muddled dialogue.
However, it’s not enough to just state a clear position. You must also explain your thinking. This is the why behind your position. Explaining your thinking means you need to share the data that informs your position and how you’re interpreting that data. W. Edwards Deming’s famous quote, “In God we trust, all others must bring data” illustrates this concept. For example: We should disband the team and use the resources elsewhere (clear position). They have missed their quota by an average of 34% the last 5 quarters (data), and we know from previous experience that teams who aren’t hitting quota by quarter 3 usually don’t improve (interpretation). Stating a clear position and explaining your thinking increases the level of candor and combats the tendency to minimize.
Communication is the engine that drives team performance. Honest and open communication fosters teamwork, innovation, trust, and just about every other positive organizational dynamic. The best teams have learned how to balance candor and curiosity to remain in the communication sweet spot. The skills of testing and inquiring help to boost curiosity and temper the need to win, while the skills of stating clear positions and explaining our thinking allows us to increase the level of candor within team communications. Team members using these four skills will keep their team dialogue in the sweet spot where their best work happens.