Conscious Conversation – The Building Blocks of Conversational Leadership
We thought a lack of information was the cause of our communication problems
– well, it is not that!
Despite a very noisy, omnichannel communication environment, we have a communication crisis. When I poll employees in organisations, their big ask is for more communication. Yet, paradoxically, when you look at the volume of information that is being shared, we have a communication overload. Communication is often top-down and one-way, focusing on telling, where we talk AT rather than TO each other. When we transform formal communication into Conversational Leadership, our communication takes on a dynamic quality that builds connection and trust. This article explores the architecture of a conversation and how it can be applied in every leadership conversation.
What is a conversation?
At its simplest, a conversation is an interactive exchange between two people or between two entities as we move deeper into the digital age. At its best, it is a mutual exchange of ideas, sentiments, information, observations, and opinions. It seeks to create shared meaning in a continuous loop of speaking, listening and feedback. Conversations can be surface or casual interactions that could be described as chit-chat, gossip, more intimate tete-a-tete, more substantial dialogues or consultations. Conversation can include individual, group (team), community, and global dialogue.
The digital world has extended the concept of conversation, where we can have a conversation with a person, an entity or a machine. Conversations can occur along the full reality-virtual spectrum, including face-to-face or technology-mediated conversations, including video, voice and text. We can have these conversations in real time, which allows for a richer interaction and immediate feedback. We can have asynchronous conversations that we come to when we are ready to respond. As we move into the metaverse, we will be having conversations through an avatar which, in a sense, is almost a third-party conversation. AI seeks to mimic our conversations through the use of deep language processing. Whether we use it as a tool to build or destroy is a vital ethical conversation that requires that we raise the level of consciousness in our conversations?
“What we know is that Words Create Worlds. We do not describe the world we see – we see the world we can describe.”
On a deeper level, it is a multi-sensory experience that uses all our senses to absorb and process the message. The emotional content of the conversation is often unspoken and can be supported by symbols, artefacts, and theatrics. In Elon Musk’s takeover bid for Twitter, he refers to Twitter as the “Town Square”, a place to connect and make sense of the world. Love it or hate it, these platforms guide our global, national, community, and organisational narratives.
- builds an ongoing narrative that shapes our current and future reality
- builds social capital and influence
- are a catalyst of incremental and change
- have the creative power to speak a new future into existence
- builds or breaks down trust and relationship
Good conversations are an essential skill for a fulfilled life. They help make sense of our world, our relationships and our own inner world.
The value of conversation in organisational leadership
Imagine if companies invested as much in improving the frequency and substance of good conversation as they did in advancing technologies
Anthropologists and sociologists use conversation to make sense of life and relationships. The core of conversational leadership is to make these conversations real and mine each conversation’s value.
One of my favourite metaphors for a conversation is that of the drone. Think of an Amazon drone delivering your message all neatly packaged. One way of communication would be when the drone drops the parcel on your porch and then goes back to base. Drones, however, are so much more than that. They have the facility to gather intelligence visually, audibly and contextually. Instead of returning to the base empty, you can learn something from each conversation. When you extend this to the digital conversation, the opportunity to gather valuable data and turn it into gold is vast.
What makes a great conversation
Great conversations hardwire us to connect, engage and navigate towards collaboration and partnership. Every conversation has the potential to connect us as people to build trust and rapport. When we interact with others, we can broaden our perspectives and build on the collective wisdom of each contributor. The goal of a conversation is to create shared meaning that leads to action. It shifts our language and perspective to incorporate what is important to you and me. When striving for collaboration, it holds both the “I” and the “We”, which results in more effective collaboration and impact.
What does this do in the organisation
Mastering dialogue sits at the heart of leadership and is often overlooked as a pathway to success. Done well conversations are transformational. They create a deeper understanding of each other’s stories and build shared meaning. Over time they are a discovery process that allows us to see the world differently and to make sense of that. In a world where an agile response is needed, our ability to communicate effectively is a critical leadership skill.
Poorly done results in a breakdown of trust, creates inefficiencies, raises barriers to collaboration results, and is inconsistent and a negative experience for employees and customers.
Build trust – the currency of Leadership
Trust is the currency of Conversational Leadership. Conscious business has shifted from short-term shareholder value to a more holistic and sustainable stakeholder value, with loyalty and retention replacing short-term gains as the primary goal. Trust is the currency of leadership that builds stakeholder value and competitive advantage. According to the 2022 Edelman Trust monitor, Failure of Leadership has made distrust the default in society, primarily driven by political and media discourse. To restore this trust, the business has a crucial role in restoring belief in society’s ability to build a better future.
“Trustworthy, consistent and fact-based information is critical to breaking the cycle of distrust.” Edelman Trust Barometer
We have passed the point where scripted PR promises, symbolic Social Media posts or graphics that strive for optics rather than authenticity are no longer enough. Trust builds when we provide trustworthy information congruent with action and delivery – leaders who walk the talk.
“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
George Bernard Shaw
Conversational leadership happens when we see every communication touch point as an opportunity for conversation with our stakeholders. How do we build trust – one conversation, one relationship at a time.
Make the Shift from Transactional to Relational
Loyalty and retention are built on quality relationships. Conversations are the building blocks of relationships. They allow us to listen to the voices of our stakeholders and raise the level of personal responsibility. A key secret to the success of my business has been word of mouth and referral, which results in repeat business and journey work. With personalisation being one of the critical pillars of the exceptional customer and employee experience, conversations allow you to listen to their voice and respond appropriately. Conversational Leadership separates you from the crowd and elevates above a CV, a proposal or marketing collateral. It allow you to make the other person feel that are the only person that matters in this moment. In a noisy world, this is a competitive strategy that is hard to duplicate. With the rise of AI, we can automate some of these conversational responses through deep language processing. Through clever use of automation your can amplify both consistency and connection.
Shape the Narrative
Conversations with stakeholders allow you to shape your organisational narrative in an Omnichannel environment. We have seen some spectacularly bad examples from the airline industry recently. When British Airways, operated by Comair in South Africa, was suspended earlier in 2022, the organisation responded by shutting down all communication. Airline counters were boarded up, emails went unanswered and social media channels were ignored after an initial announcement. The debacle with Ryan Air’s South African passport Afrikaans questionnaire was a classic example and reminds me of Maya Angelou’s advice. When you know better, do better. On the other hand, an airline that does it brilliantly is Safair. Not only do you get SMS communication every step of the way. Every flight ends with a recorded message from Kirby Gordon (you see, I remember his name), who invites feedback, good or bad. And then you still get an email afterwards giving you the opportunity for feedback. When I had a luggage problem on the weekend, there was a representative who responded to a Facebook message on the weekend. This is conversational leadership.
- CEOs ramp up your visibility and give regular updates – even if not much has changed. People want to know you are working on it.
- Be seen to be dealing with queries from your customer base. I have noticed that large companies like Absa and Tiger Brands regularly respond to job seekers on LinkedIn with an invitation to apply. (If you really want an A+, let applicants know when they haven’t been successful).
- Share your purpose and values and demonstrate how you are living these values.
Reframe your communication strategy from one-way to two-way. Provide constructive channels for communication that allow you to respond rather than react.
Treat Every Conversation as an Experiment
Conversations are one of the most agile ways to fail forward. We can shape thinking, response, agreement, and commitment when we see every conversation as an experiment. If things don’t go well, we can breathe, reflect and do better next time. Japanese art is a powerful metaphor for turning broken pieces into something beautiful. In conversation, we share our stories, expand our awareness and uncover our blind spots and biases. This awareness is the gold that allows us to return and co-create a new narrative.
Master conversational leaders use the contracting conversation to establish psychological safety where robust dialogue and positive conflict thrive. Each conversation is a container that allows its participants to explore different perspectives and test thinking out loud. This is particularly powerful when having a coaching conversation.
Speak the Future into Being
Words create worlds. Peter Drucker said – I look out the window and see a future that is not yet here. Otto Scharmer wrote Emerging from the Emerging Future. We use the vision, strategy, culture and the values that support it speak the future of your organisation into existence. If it works at a macro level, then why not extend it into our everyday conversation. What if we answered this question:
What if every conversation creates a new and better version of your future.
A big part of the work that I do and the success I have achieved centres around the science and magic of Conversational Intelligence.
So my invitation to you is to take the next few weeks to listen to the conversations you are having with yourself and others. Notice what impact each conversation you have on your relationship with your key stakeholders. Reflect on whether your conversations are opening up the possibility or shutting it down. Standing in front of you are conversational bricks – what you build with them is up to you.