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How to Have Effective Conversations as a Leader

Leaders have to bring many people inside and outside their organisation along with them to help realise their vision. And this involves a lot of conversations. We often jump into these conversations without planning or navigate them without any mindful attention and – unsurprisingly – many of them fail to move us toward our ambitions.

I’d like you to think of each conversation as an opportunity to help you further your mission and for you to treat each with the strategic attention it consequently deserves. And, thankfully, I have four simple steps to follow to ensure each interaction leads to impact.

Confidence → Connection → Clarity → Conversion

1. Confidence

Confidence is essential to being a convincing leader. And it comes from two main areas: from knowing what you are going to say and by believing in it. You then display your confidence by speaking slowly and clearly, with an assured tone and open posture.

Knowing: You should prepare your intent and approach ahead of time. You might ask yourself questions like: What is your objective? What outcomes do you want / not want? Who are you speaking to (and what are their desires and obstacles)? How might you be challenged? By knowing we can embrace any situation, including those we might find uncomfortable or that present the greatest challenges.

Believing: No one buys into an idea or takes instructions unless they know why they are being given. Persuasive communication puts the why at the centre. So make your purpose both understandable and relatable. Understandable means being tangible and real. Relatable means something their own values can easily connect with, supporting a bigger goal they also want and not just your personal agenda.

2. Connection

Establish a personal connection from the start, before any requests are made or ideas suggested.

Build rapport: Be open, discuss shared matters, ask them about themselves and tune into their conversation style, tone and body language. If you want them to open up, they have to feel it is safe to do so. Convey respect, show their opinions are valued and express interest in them.

Be human: When leaders are the first to admit vulnerabilities, it not only makes them trustworthy, it also opens the door for others to admit their weaknesses and thereby be accepting of ideas that could change their behaviour.

Empathy: Always consider the other’s situation and how your words will be received. Use your emotional intelligence to manage your own emotions, as well as theirs. To pass an idea from our brain to someone else’s requires them to be receptive and that is not possible when they are scared, stressed or angry.

Engagement: Ensure the dialogue is two way: listen actively, ask questions and pay attention to both the verbal and non-verbal clues they send back. And never interrupt. We are more likely to commit to new ideas if we can participate in the discussion.

3. Clarity

We think that just because we have said something, we’ve been understood. However, we tend to overestimate how good we are at communicating.

Don’t leave room for interpretation: Assume as little as possible. We often miss bits out of our speech as we think the other person can fill in the gaps, crediting them with knowing what’s in our heads.

Know the person: People draw on their experiences to ‘filter’ what you are saying into something that makes sense to them. Ensure your meaning survives these filters, by tailoring your language to the person in front of you.

Simplify: Don’t scare off with big demands or confuse with complex ideas and language. To make it easy to understand and digest, break up ideas and build them up piece by piece.

Visualise: Create a visual image in their minds using rich language and stories. They must be able to picture the change to go after it.

Clarity is important as you have to get your message across first time. Questions are good but they should be the kind that shows they desire to go deeper into the idea, not that they are confused and losing interest. And if they do want to go deeper, you have the answers to those questions already prepared, right?

4. Conversion

Conversion – i.e. inspiring people to move from their way of thinking to yours – is about helping the person in front of you to reach their own conclusion that this is the right decision for them.

Frame it positively: People can get defensive about the idea that they may need to change their ways. So focus on positive emotions, positive actions and positive outcomes. Inspire desire. Make it not about you but what your idea can do for them.

Lead with emotion: Information alone isn’t what changes behaviour. You have to induce feelings to inspire action.

Invite, don’t tell: Ask questions that help them to reason out the answers for themselves. If you have provided enough context (emotional and factual) then a question like ‘What do you think we should do with this project?’ should lead to the same answer you would give. But now, they feel ownership.

Reframe: Often people reject ideas because of their limiting beliefs; ‘I can’t, that won’t work, it’s not for me…’ So don’t just inspire people to want to do something but also to feel able to do it by reframing these beliefs into opportunities.

Offer a practical action: As with any communication there must be a call to action, so even if the dialogue is more conceptual, still have something they can do to show their commitment to the idea.

Be happy with progress: Don’t get angry when people don’t get it immediately or you’ll make them defensive. Be happy with progress, not perfection.

With any conversation, allow yourself to learn along the way: ‘why is this message not sticking?’ You must try and understand how people react if you want a better outcome next time. You should also appreciate the new perspective you get from people who disagree with you. By better understanding where they’re coming from – their desires and challenges – you can help lead more people like them in future.

This article was written for - and first published by - ACEVO (the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations). The articles is adapted from my book, 'Influence: Powerful Communications, Positive Change'.


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