Every movement starts with a conversation. Every partnership survives through conversations. Every marriage thrives on conversations.
But not all conversations are created equal. Some conversations are easy to have; chief among them are celebratory conversations. When things are going well and course adjustments are not needed, conversations are easy to initiate and maintain. Likewise, touch-base conversations do not require much mental strength, as friends, colleagues, and acquaintances simply catch up with each other on the latest news or updates about their status. Gossip conversations are even more fun (albeit less productive) as two or more people can happily chat away and share salacious details about another person who is not present for the conversation.
However, crucial conversations are different. These are conversations that require someone to do something different from what they have been doing: either to stop or do less of something they are doing or start or do more of something they have not been doing, or modify the manner in which they are doing it. Crucial conversations may involve high-stakes outcomes or high-stakes emotions, sometimes because the people involved are heavily vested in the status quo or the change required or the people involved have emotional baggage that makes the conversation difficult. If you are an adult, you know what a crucial conversation is. You have probably been engaged in a few; some of which have been productive, and some of which have not been productive. Some of them have been painful, others have been cathartic. You may have even avoided some crucial conversations…this is also common with adults in Africa. Whatever your history or experience with crucial conversations, you know that they are important to have, necessary for organizational success, and easy to screw up. What you may not know is this: crucial conversations are where leaders emerge.
Leadership is influence. Leaders influence; they may influence through their physical attributes, mental acuity, financial resources, technical prowess, artistic talent, or appointed authority; but ultimately, that’s what leaders do. We influence. Some leaders influence others to do good things (e.g., Ghandi influencing the world to resist peacefully); some leaders influence others to do bad things (e.g., Hitler influencing the Germans to kill six million Jews). Some leaders are expected – based on their position of authority – to influence and yet fail to do so (e.g., Kofi Annan and his failure in averting the Rwanda crisis); some leaders are not respected – based on their lack of position of authority – to influence and yet influence greatly (e.g., Greta Thunberg influencing the world to take climate change seriously). In order to truly maximize one’s influence, a leader must master the art of conducting crucial conversations. By following these three rules you will find yourself becoming better at doing them, and achieving better results with them. Here they are:
- SEEK FIRST TO UNDERSTAND. How often have you seen a leader approach another person about an issue and spend a lot of time stating their case and why they are not happy with the situation? How often have you seen conversations devolve into explanatory debates as each person tries to convince the other person that he is right by out-explaining the other? In any crucial conversation, it is important that you seek first to understand before you seek to be understood. This means that the conversation initiator is best served by starting the conversation by asking open-ended non-accusatory questions that elicit explanatory responses from the other person. Please notice that the emphasis is on open-ended, non-accusatory questions. If you are truly interested in understanding the reason for an observed action or behavior, then you will ask it in a manner that is non-inflammatory and non-judgmental so that the respondent is empowered to provide her/his explanation with a minimum amount of defensiveness. This is important because the more you understand why someone acted in a certain manner that may appear unacceptable or strange to you, the better you will be able to convince her/him to willingly change her/his behavior. This process is much easier said than done; the natural tendency in situations where undesirable actions or behavior is observed is to inform the person that this behavior is unacceptable and must be changed at once; with the leader then leaving the scene with the satisfaction of someone who believes that they have solved the problem and corrected the issue…when all that they have done is reinforce their position, angered or alienated the other person, and achieved a temporary compliance.
- DEMONSTRATE EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE. Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to recognize and control one’s emotions as well as the emotions of others. It is the most reliable indicator of leadership success and influencing ability. Emotional intelligence is comprised of five components: self-awareness, self-management, motivation, empathy and social communication. Self-awareness is the ability to recognize one’s own emotions as they are occurring and self-management is the ability to control one’s own emotions and not simply act in a manner that is congruent to the emotion that one is feeling. Motivation is the ability to get oneself to take positive actions despite one’s own emotions, empathy is the ability to recognize and identify with the emotions of others, and social communication is the ability to communicate in a manner that leaves others feeling valued and respected. Emotional intelligence is vitally important for conducting crucial conversations in a productive manner. We have all seen it before; leaders engaged in a crucial conversation and the conversation devolved into a shouting match or ended up with both people declaring silent war on each other. A leader who is unable to control his emotions or the emotions of others will struggle to conduct crucial conversations effectively.
- DON’T RUSH THE CONVERSATION. A crucial conversation must be respected and not rushed. A crucial conversation is crucial because the stakes are high, and if they are high, then it must be given time to be handled properly. Too often we rush into a crucial conversation because we are under the mistaken impression that important means urgent. There are matters that are important but not urgent; they are matters that may be urgent but not important. Most issues that require crucial conversations are important, but may not be urgent. Find the right time to hold it and when you hold that conversation, do not be in a rush to complete it.
Dear African Leader – remember that crucial conversations are crucial because they are necessary; they are not events to be avoided as much as possible but they are opportunities for you to build and enhance your ability to influence and steer you organization to success. Do not bury your head in the sand the next time there is an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and conduct a crucial conversation; welcome the challenge and turn it into an opportunity for earning the trust and respect of your colleagues. Africa needs you to be the best leader that you can be.