Communication Leadership People Matters

What is Conversational Capacity And Why Does It Matter?

“Management’s business is building organizations that work,” says Harvard Business School’s Joan Magretta, and conversational capacity is a foundational competence for building teams and organizations that work well – even when the pressure is on.

But what is conversational capacity?

Conversational capacity is the ability to engage in constructive, learning-focused dialogue about difficult subjects, in challenging circumstances, and across tough boundaries. It’s a vital competence for both personal and collective performance:

  • Personal performance: A person with high conversational capacity makes every conversation or meeting smarter because they’re in the room. A person with low conversational capacity – even if they have high intelligence and good intentions – often has the opposite effect.
  • Collective performance: A team with high conversational capacity can perform well, remaining on track even when dealing with their most troublesome issues. The performance of a team with low capacity, by contrast, can be derailed by a trivial disagreement. In this sense, conversational capacity isn’t just another aspect of effective teamwork – it defines it. A team that can’t communicate about its most pressing issues isn’t really a team at all. It’s just a group of people who can’t engage with each other effectively when it counts.

The Sweet Spot
You can measure the conversational capacity of an individual or a team by their ability to converse in the “sweet spot” under pressure. The sweet spot is that place in a conversation or meeting where candor and courage are balanced with curiosity and humility. This is a good place to work. Candor and courage are high, so people are honest, open, forthright, and direct. But at the same time, they’re curious and humble, so they’re open-minded, intellectually vulnerable, and eager to learn. When we’re in the sweet spot, we have the ability to raise our hands and speak up, and the ability to listen and learn from others, even in circumstances that don’t make it easy.

A Pivotal Competence
It directly affects the quality of every relationship, activity, or process that depends on effective communication and collaboration for its effectiveness. This includes such pivotal activities as running meetings, making decisions, orchestrating change, boosting engagement, providing and receiving feedback, dealing with conflict, and implementing strategy. So, just as we rate a truck’s capacity for carrying a load, or a factory’s capacity for production, we should also pay attention to a team’s conversational capacity.

If the challenges facing a team are bigger than the team’s conversational capacity, that team is, by definition, dysfunctional.

Not On Our Dashboards
Despite its game-changing importance, conversational capacity is largely overlooked. It’s absent from most management dashboards, and it’s lacking from many team, organizational, or leadership development plans. There are two primary reasons for this oversight:

Up to now, we lacked a clear label for it. Without actionable frameworks for the concept, we’re left to describe conversational capacity by the symptoms of its absence; lack of trust, dysfunctional teamwork, poor engagement, interpersonal conflict, organizational defensiveness, or low psychological safety.
We lacked a rigorous approach to building it.

It’s A Discipline
Conversational capacity is a fast-effect, high-impact discipline that borrows from research in cognitive neuroscience, human factors, emotional intelligence, mindfulness, cognitive behavioural therapy, leadership studies, and management science.

You Can Build It
The good news is that you can build this discipline. Even better, you can turn your workplace into a practice space by using every meeting, decision, problem, change, conflict, or difficult person – into opportunities for practice. By investing in this ongoing practice, with every passing week you and your team will learn to work with increasing agility and focus, and perform brilliantly in circumstances that incapacitate less disciplined teams.

Three Domains Of Practice
To build your conversational capacity there are three domains of practice: awareness (the emotional domain), mindset (the cognitive domain), and skillset (the behavioral domain).

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 when it counts we must learn to recognize these defensive reactions and then build our capacity to act more intentionally despite them.

Increasing our awareness is just the start. We must also adopt a mindset that subordinates our primal emotional reactions to the goal of learning. But a mindset is only as useful as our ability to put it into action, so the discipline includes a skill set – specific, well-defined behaviours – for conversing in a balanced way under pressure.

The discipline isn’t just a set of good ideas, but actionable ideas – ideas you can put to work. Each of the three domains includes a core competence as well as a range of practices to help you cultivate that competence.

What Is Your Conversational Capacity?
As the world changes with growing speed and complexity, people and teams need to ramp up their ability to engage in balanced, learning-focused dialogue as they make their biggest decisions and tackle their toughest challenges. Building your conversational capacity can help you do this. It can improve not just how you communicate, but how you influence, collaborate, manage, and lead.

Given the challenges facing you and your team or organization, to connect the concept to your context, here are a few questions to consider and discuss:

  • How would you rate your personal conversational capacity?
  • How would you rate the collective conversational capacity of your team?
  • Your organization?
  • What are the symptoms that suggest conversational capacity may be lacking?
  • What can you do to start building it?

Find out more here

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