There are times when you as a leader will need to have an open dialogue with an individual, group or team. This might be so that you can get others’ input, thoughts or opinions. It isn’t about pushing your ideas on others, it’s about drawing theirs out. These kinds of dialogues are grounded in trust and safety and a slower pace so others can speak what they think and feel.
Leaders often express that they have a difficult time with these kinds of conversations because they require a different set of beliefs and skills than the everyday, fast-paced, “make a decision” discussions that happen most frequently in organizations. A dialogue tends to take on a life of its own, and the “out of control” nature of such a conversation can feel uncomfortable for those leading it.
Great open conversations can be filled with light bulb moments, creativity and new ideas leaping out at a pace that can be breathtaking and useful for an organization. Having an open dialogue will require you to:
Be present and listen in a much deeper way than you’ve been used to. You will do less talking than usual. When you speak, you should be intentional about not ruining the trust that is needed in the room for people to feel safe to say what they need to say. Remain calm and willing to hear new thoughts and ideas.
Have no hidden agenda that can skew the ideas that come forward. This dialogue is for you to foster the creativity in the room and avoid shutting people down or leading the conversation in a direction that will serve you rather than gaining insight from those invited into the conversation.
Be non-judgmental about what you hear. Judging the ideas that come forward is a sure way to stop the free flow of conversation. Be encouraging and upbeat about what you hear without critiquing unusual ideas; you can do that later. Just listen.
Avoid defensiveness about things that are said. It’s very possible that in this “safe space” you’ve created, you might hear some things that make you feel as if you need to defend them. Be aware of your emotional reaction and avoid being outwardly defensive to assure the openness continues.
Be curious as you listen, and you’ll find that other questions might arise that you can ask to deepen or continue the conversation as it unfolds. Curiosity may also help to override any judgements or defensiveness you may be feeling.
Guide the process lightly. Begin with an open question (Examples might be: What is our next step? What do we value as a team? What are we doing well? What can we improve upon?). Continue to ask questions to spark thinking. Slow your pace and allow silence for others to think so they respond with their best thoughts.
If you want to have open conversations that will encourage creativity you’ll need to show up differently than you might otherwise. Your presence and ability to hold a safe space for dialogue can encourage others to express new ideas!
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Mary Jo Asmus is an executive/leadership coach whose work spans decades of making a difference in the lives of hundreds of executives, leaders and teams in Fortune 500, mid- and small- sized business, governments and nonprofits. She focuses on facilitating individuals and teams from first-line supervisor to the C-suite to create, develop, and influence the relationships that can make them extraordinary.