Change Happens; One Conversation at a Time

Sometimes you have an experience where something you already know becomes an epiphany and brings you to the essence of it. This happened to me during a keynote speech from Susan Scott about Fierce Conversations.
Written by Andy Schoonbroodt

Managing change is often surrounded by a multitude of activities, plans, methodologies and tools. We are constantly looking for new insights and tools for managing change. And while every tactic that supports people to be successful in their change journey is valuable, we are not always aware that the most powerful tool is already at our fingertips. Unfortunately, I see that all too often either it is not used, we do not use its full potential or when we do use it, it misses the mark. I speak about the power of conversation. I believe that leading or managing change is essentially about having real and continuous conversation.

The beginning and end of a change initiative are often most visible: inspirational speeches at town halls, ceremonial kick-offs, celebrations at the finish line to toast success. However, the middle of the change is where the hardest work happens and where the long-term success is being secured. This is where the transition struggles most. We encounter all kinds of setbacks and are sometimes tempted to stop moving forward and return to how things were. This is where real conversations are needed.

Susan Scott put it best in her book: Fierce Conversations: “Our careers, our companies, our relationships, and indeed our lives succeed or fail gradually, then suddenly, one conversation at a time. While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a career, a company, a relationship, or a life, any single conversation can.”

How often do we experience these situations during organizational change…

  • We say what someone wants to hear, not what we really think. Maybe because we’re being careful and are afraid to damage the relationship.
  • We find it difficult to bring up something that needs to be said (the elephant in the room that everyone knows about and that is constantly present), because we expect a consequence.
  • Everyone nods when the leader says something. No critical questions are asked. The so-called ‘corporate nod’.
  • Being in a conversation where one person has no real attention for the other because they’re busy telling their own story. Does not listen or answers everything with ‘yes, but’.
  • Being in a conversation where someone sends out signals that the person is not really present or truly interested in the conversation.

Many organizations (or relationships) suffer from what Susan Scott calls ‘terminal niceness’. We are proud of the careful conversations we have. But then, are we not accepting a kind of mediocrity in how we work together or what we can achieve together? How many of our conversations truly matter? What is discussed, how it is discussed and who is involved in the conversation determines what will and will not happen. Do we give that enough attention?

So the key question is: What kind of organization or leader do you want to be? What conversations do you want to have? How can you have better conversations? The idea is to connect on a deeper level with your employees, teams, and every person you engage with in the organization. This can help you to be a true leader that successfully leads change and creates successful organizations.

Here are some tips for better conversations:

1. Talk about what’s most important right now. Explicitly ask yourself or the person you are having a conversation with: what is the most important to discuss right now? And what are the elephants in the room that we ignore and avoid. Sure, showing yourself or speaking up in a conversation can be scary but it can bring progress. Not having the conversation is a lot riskier than having it.

2. There is no single truth, but individual realities. Between right and wrong, between your truth or mine is an area for conversation. Only by understanding the other person’s different reality or beliefs, can we move forward or support someone. So have a conversation by listening, asking questions, trying to understand. And then, finally, and only if it adds value to the conversation, come up with your own opinion, advice, or argument.

3. Be here in the conversation, and nowhere else. Real conversations means to genuinely connect, to provide recognition and to really understand someone. By asking questions that seek genuine understanding and really listening. By actually being present with someone, even for a short mind, and not allowing your mind to be somewhere else.

4. Try to recognize opportunities to be fierce. Try to be conscious in every conversation and identify opportunities to be brave. Discuss what really needs to be discussed. Recognize the difficult topic that can get in the way of ultimate success, examine the elephant you’re avoiding. Recognize the opportunity, stop for a moment, take a deep breath and be brave!

5. Words Matter! There are no trivial words or sentences. That certainly applies to leaders. People listen to our words and give them weight. What you say is not always what someone hears and a single ill-chosen phrase can wipe the effects of a good conversation. So watch your words, check what the person has heard, and keep in mind what you want someone to remember after your conversation.

6. Listen, listen, listen! Less talking, more listening. Try to avoid your ‘buts’ when giving your reaction, they send out a message as well. The conversation is not about you.

This list is of course not exhaustive, so I am invite you to share your own tips for having real conversations. Let’s get up, come out from behind ourselves, and start having real conversations. Conversations in which we show ourselves and have the courage to discuss what needs to be discussed. Conversations where we are present and awake for the other person. Let’s keep those conversation going throughout the change journey and in the end we’ll have genuine reasons to celebrate our change success.