Human nature has stacked the odds against any group trying to collaborate under pressure. As the going gets tough, human nature has wired us to fight or fly, which often translates into unproductive and downright dysfunctional behavior in the board room.
If a business team wants to consistently overcome its challenges, its members must learn to navigate tough topics with ease. To do that, they must develop a high conversational capacity — the ability to dialogue about difficult subjects openly and non-defensively, according to Craig Weber, founder of the Weber Consulting Group and the author of Conversational Capacity: The Key to Building Successful Teams that Perform when the Pressure is On.
“A team with high conversational capacity can put its toughest, most difficult, most wicked issue on the table and get good work done. It doesn’t mean there’s not conflict, difficulty or differences. It means that despite it, they’re still able to make good decisions,” Weber explained in his April 26 Fridays with Vistage webinar. “When conversational capacity is lacking, problems are covered up, threatening issues are avoided, people don’t take responsibility for problems. It’s very hard to develop a culture of trust when people aren’t talking about issues.”
Weber shared strategies for learning or increasing conversational capacity during a recent “Fridays with Vistage” webinar. He argued that being able to productively dialogue through issues is as crucial to a company’s success as accurately balancing its books or developing sound business strategy.
“I would argue that conversational capacity isn’t just another aspect of effective teamwork, it defines it,” Weber said. “If you have a team that can’t talk about its most pressing issues, then you have a group of people that can’t work effectively when it really counts.”
He laid out the two tell-tale signs that a team is running low on conversational capacity:
- People are unwilling to bring issues to the table that need discussion. Problems are coming up in hallways or the parking lot but not in meetings.
- Unproductive or petty issues are talked about during meetings. There’s arguing, bickering or heated debate but no progress because the conversation is unproductive. Such issues are continued to future meetings or eventually slip onto the “undiscussable” list.
When controversial or stressful topics come up, human nature typically propels us to either shy away from the conflict or to try and win it, Weber said.
“Some people start to shut down. Other people start to heat up. If I let go of candor I become guarded and cautious,” Weber said. “If I let go of curiosity I become arrogant and argumentative – my mouth opens and my mind shuts.”
He explained that the key to building conversational capacity is striking a healthy balance between candor and curiosity.
People that tend to be more aggressive or argumentative, or keen on winning a conflict (a manifestation of the primordial “fight” response to stress) have to work on remaining curious and open to others’ views during a discussion. This means actively listening and seeking out others’ input instead of simply focusing on proving their own point. People who tend to shrink away from conflict (a flight response) must work on being candid, continuing to participate and voice their position even as a meeting moves into tense territory.
For those who tend to avoid or minimize conflict, Weber offered two techniques for fostering candor:
- Advocate your position clearly and succinctly, ideally in one sentence and no more than two, as though you were writing a strong topic sentence for a paragraph.
- Describe the thinking that led you to your position. Share the data you’ve looked at and how you’re interpreting it.
“What we’re trying to do with these two skills is get that unique way of looking at the problem, that mental model we have in our head, out of our head through our mouth and into the meeting as clearly as possible,” Weber said.
He also shared techniques to help individuals focused on “winning” discussions to cultivate their own curiosity:
- Test your view. After explaining your position, seek out other team members’ reactions or thoughts. Your goal is to get others to challenge your thinking or provide alternative ways of looking at your idea.
- Inquire into the views of others, especially those that have taken a different stance. Don’t grill or interrogate, but instead ask questions driven by a sincere desire to learn how they perceive a problem. Avoid skepticism or cynicism.
Weber noted that most people don’t react to conflict the same way every time. One of the first steps toward improving our conversational capacity is becoming mindful of our own tendencies and behavior triggers under stress. Under what circumstances do we minimize conflict? What triggers our urge to be right?
“Talk to colleagues and ask them questions. Talk to loved ones and family members and say, ‘Hey what do you notice about my tendencies?’” Weber advised. “Remember, often other people see our behavior even more clearly than we do.”
While certain techniques can help build conversational capacity, maintaining it requires a specific mindset, Weber said.
“I’ve got be more wedded to making an informed and an effective choice than being comfortable or being right,” Weber said.
He compared striving for a balance between candor and curiosity and gradually honing one’s conversational approach to practicing a martial art.
“It’s not really the other person in the conversation that provides the opponent in this martial art…Our opponent is our own ego. If we want to stay grounded in the sweet spot and have high conversational capacity under pressure, we’ve got to have our ego well under check,” Weber said. “We can’t let the need to minimize or win, which are very strong ego-driven impulses, run our behavioral show.”