Award-winning consultant, advisor, and speaker, Craig Weber explains why conversation is perhaps the most powerful tool we have at our disposal in creating positive relationships and productive teams.
“We cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around us”, says Jane Goodall. “What we do makes a difference. We must only decide what kind of difference we want to make.” She’s right. No matter our status or station, we can play a leading role in building healthier work relationships, teams, organizations, and communities. We can take action and have an impact. We can wield great influence. We have more power than we think.
This matters now more than ever. In our increasingly crazy and contentious world we need people willing to raise their hands and their voices in order to make a constructive difference—people eager to do more purposeful work and to contribute in a more meaningful way. But we need people not just willing to stand up and speak out with good intentions; we need people who can do so skillfully—people who can spark more learning than defensiveness, more collaboration than conflict, more progress than dysfunction.
A critical competence that enables this sort of constructive influence is something I refer to as conversational capacity, the ability to engage in important conversations in a “sweet spot” where candour and courage are balanced with curiosity and humility. The ability to stay in this sweet spot is a pivotal competence when it comes to having an impact on the world around us.
Why? When our conversational capacity is high we’re able to remain learning-focused and purpose-driven under pressure. When it’s low, our fear-based, ego-driven reactions knock us off balance and hijack our good intentions.
So how do we build our conversational capacity? Cultivating self-awareness, which the psychologist Tasha Eurich calls “the meta-skill of the twenty-first century,” is the first step. Learning to maintain a candid and curious stance requires a clear understanding of how our emotional programming works against it. We’ve all inherited two powerful defensive tendencies that throw us off balance in difficult moments—one renders us less candid and courageous, the other less curious and humble.
To be more effective in pressing situations we must learn to recognize these emotional reactions and then develop the capacity to act more intentionally despite them. This is not a simple undertaking. It takes discipline. (This explains why conversational capacity has been described as “Operationalized EQ.”)
To acquire this discipline increasing our awareness is just the start. We must next adopt a mindset that places the goals of thinking more clearly and making smart choices above being comfortable or feeling “right.” Put differently, we must learn to subordinate our primal emotional programming to learning.
We then employ skills for staying in the sweet spot—candid and courageous yet curious and humble—even in circumstances that conspire against it. Wielding constructive influence when it counts is no easy task.
But it’s worth the work. When we’re conscious of our emotional programming, focused on learning, and armed with a set of skills for remaining balanced despite our primitive defensive tendencies, we enjoy more control over how we respond in difficult moments. This comes with a range of benefits:
- Every meeting, team, project, or conversation is smarter because we’re in the room.
- Exerting greater influence, we can help good ideas get the traction they deserve.
- We enjoy more competence and confidence for dealing with tough issues and stressful circumstances.
- We’re better at remaining level-headed and learning-focused in frenzied circumstances that cause most people to shut down or go ballistic.
- More emotionally and socially intelligent, we’re able to navigate tough situations and conversations in a productive way.
I refer to the ability to stay in the sweet spot as a conversational martial art. But in this martial art our opponent isn’t the people with whom we’re talking, the issues we’re trying to address, or the context in which all this is happening. In this martial art, our opponent is our ego.
And if we’re to stay purpose-driven and learning-focused when it counts, we must take our ego—and the defensive emotional reactions that protect it—to the mat.
“Power is about making a difference in the world,” says the psychologist Dacher Keltner. “We make a difference in the world by influencing other people.”
Building our conversational capacity is a pivotal competence for doing just that.