When working with senior executives, one of the most common requests I get is to help create “juicy conversations.” What they mean by “juicy” is deep, probing, uncomfortable, novel, productive conversations that go beyond the normal safe, boring talk that consumes most meetings. Upon observation, I’ve realized that these leaders aren’t getting juicy conversations because of their own behavior. So, if you’re serious about fostering juicy conversations, here’s what you need to do (and not do).
Stop Doing This…
There are a few things you’re probably doing that are stifling good discussion. Here’s the list of things you really need to stop doing.
Stop starting the meeting by saying, “let’s have a really juicy conversation today.” Somehow that introduction sets everyone on edge and inhibits, rather than encourages the kind of openness that contributes to good conversation. Everyone just looks around nervously wondering just what’s going to be unearthed.
Stop talking. Guess what? You can’t have a juicy conversation with yourself. You should be talking infrequently. When you do talk, keep it short. A long-winded monologue from the boss is likely to shut everyone down, if not put them to sleep. Zip it or clip it.
Stop providing the answers. There’s no reason to have a juicy conversation about an issue where you’ve already figured out the solution. If you repeatedly jump in with the answer to your own questions, your team will learn to wait for the answer key. Who can blame them? No one wants to go out on a limb only to be contradicted five seconds later by the boss.
Stop showing frustration. Most leaders I know want juicy conversations that get to the heart of under-performance. But under-performance is personal and scary and uncomfortable. It’s going to require team members to talk publicly about what they did poorly or what they could be doing better. If your response to their vulnerability is frustration, anger, or hostility, even the brave will retreat.
Start Doing This…
There are new approaches to try in an effort to engage your team in richer, more thoughtful discussion.
Start introducing important discussions with a request that the team think differently about an issue. “We’ve been getting 3% growth each year for the past three years. If we wanted to get 15% growth, how would we need to think differently?” Alternatively, choose a stakeholder and re-examine an issue from their perspective, “What if we were to completely rethink this process through the eyes of our distributors?” You’ll generate more ideas by asking the team to “think differently” than asking them to “think better.”
Start engaging the quieter voices in the room. Use a simple facilitation technique like going around the table, passing a pen to the person who will speak next, or setting a timer on each comment to dampen the loud voices and amplify the quiet ones. Draw quieter folks into the conversation with non-threatening questions such as “what haven’t we thought about yet?” Changing who contributes will change the tenor of the conversation.
Start asking really juicy questions. Use provocative questions that stop people in their tracks and cause them to reflect. You’ll know that you’ve struck gold when your question is met with a full minute of silence. (Remember not to jump in with the answers!) You might have to wait them out, but it’s worth it. You could say something like, “I want each member of the team to share one way that you are slowing our speed to market,” or “Name your one greatest concern about launching this new project,” “Tell us one thing that you’ve been thinking but haven’t said out loud.”
Start a juicy conversation by letting people talk in pairs or groups of three. That way, they’ll be able to test out their ideas in a safer setting. If the sub-group agrees, at least one member will likely have the courage to raise the issue to the whole team. If it’s a really radioactive topic, let the subgroups write their comments on a slip of paper and read them aloud.
Start modeling the behavior you’re looking for. If you think the team is in a rut, share one thing you’re doing that you think is contributing to the problem. Show that you’re willing to take accountability for your part of the problem and the solution.
Start reacting positively to even the most uncomfortable comments. If you’re trying to dial up the intensity of the conversation, what you say and what you do need to reinforce refreshingly radical statements, regardless of whether you like what they are saying or not. Say something like, “Wow! That is a bold statement, we have never thought about it that way before. That’s exactly what I was looking for today!” If the person’s comment is hard for you to hear, it’s especially important to comment. “Yikes, I guess I asked for that. I’m sure that was difficult for you to say, so I appreciate it.”
If every meeting was filled with juicy conversations, we’d all be too drained to act on the insights. But occasionally, you need to get a little deeper into an issue, a little more open to new ways of thinking, a little less comfortable. On those occasions, make sure you have lots of time and then open things up. Ask big, thought provoking questions and then wait it out. Be patient and don’t give up.