You can’t control every variable in a conversation or meeting. But you can choose to be a constructive variable.
. . insist on taking part in what is healthy, generous, and responsible. Stand up, speak out, and when necessary fight back. Get down off the fence and lend a hand, grab a-hold, be a citizen – not a subject.
— Edward Abbey
- We can have far more productive influence, and play a more constructive role at work, by improving how we engage with others.
- What’s more, our organizations and our communities are in desperate need of people willing and able to do this – people who can help us build healthier teams, work relationships, and organizations.
- This is especially so when we’re up against adaptive challenges, and the ability to spark collaborative learning is the key to progress.
- But, making a constructive difference is harder than it sounds. It takes more than good intentions – it takes the ability to align our behavior with our intentions, even when our defensive emotional reactions are working to pull them apart.
- Building that ability requires two things: an actionable framework, and ample practice.
- The conversational capacity discipline provides the framework, and our efforts to make a difference provide the practice.
- Our goal should be to create a virtuous cycle, whereby our work to make a constructive difference provides the practice for building our conversational capacity, and our heightened conversational capacity, in turn, makes us more effective in our efforts to make a constructive difference.
A COMMON QUESTION
My team and I help people, projects, teams, and organizations improve their performance by treating dialogue as a discipline. We do this by showing them how to build their conversational capacity – the ability to remain both candid and curious in important conversations. This is the sweet spot, where we have the ability to raise our hand and speak up, and the ability to listen and learn – even when the situation isn’t making it easy.
In our workshops, after exploring the sweet spot concept, we’re often asked a question like one of these:
- “OK. I understand what I need to do to stay in the sweet spot. But how can I use these skills to make others more candid and curious?”
- “How do we use our conversational capacity to force others to behave in a productive way?”
- “How do I drag someone else to the sweet spot?”
The answer is simple: we can’t. First, the ability to converse in the sweet spot is not a superpower, or some form of mind control. Second, it’s hard enough to keep myself in the sweet spot, so I have little hope of forcing anyone else to join me there. Can I act in a way that encourages people to join me in productive dialogue? Yes. Can I engage with others in a way that increases the likelihood they’ll respond in a more balanced manner? Sure. But can I force them into the sweet spot, or control their behavior in any other way? Not a chance.
So, while we can’t control every variable in a conversation or meeting, we can choose to be a constructive variable. Even in high-pressure, messy, adaptive circumstances – and even when others are behaving poorly – we can strive to play a productive role. This is a healthier and more realistic objective.
But, for reasons we’ll soon explore, aligning our behavior with this objective takes a high degree of skill.
WHAT DO I MEAN BY CONSTRUCTIVE?
You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you.
— Jane Goodall
It’s important to note that we’re always a variable in a conversation or meeting. Our presence and our behavior produce an effect. The only question, then, is what effect do we intend to have? Do we want to make our conversations and meetings better or worse; smarter or dumber; more effective, or less so?
I grew up backpacking, camping, and hiking, and a basic objective was to always leave the campsite or trail in better condition than you found it. You do this by packing out any litter left by a previous group, fixing a collapsed fire ring, or repairing a damaged part of the trail. This same mindset is at play when our intention is to be a constructive variable. Our goal is to behave in a way that makes every conversation or meeting smarter, more focused, more balanced, and more on-purpose than if we weren’t in the room.
Here’s a more expansive description of the “constructive mindset” from Chapter 8 of my second book, Influence in Action:
A person with a constructive orientation strives to build things up rather than tear them down. Even in the midst of setbacks they remain realistically optimistic and focus on what can be done rather than what can’t. With this characteristic, which Erich Fromm described as “biophilic” (loves life), a person is always trying to make things healthier, smarter, and more effective.
. . It’s in their nature to take care of things – themselves, others, their teams, organizations, communities, and the environment – so they’re driven to create, to build, to make things better. They look for ways to make improvements and positive change, and view problems as opportunities for learning and progress. Focused on promoting health and constructive change, rather than on inflating their own ego, they have a mutually beneficial relationship with the organization or community. With a constructive mindset, in other words, a person is always trying to make the world around them a more vibrant and healthy place.
That said, when you have a constructive mindset, you’re not a naïve, Holier-than-thou, Dudley-Do-Right. You have a pragmatic, clear-headed view of the mess you’re in, the challenges you face, and your personal limitations. The difference is in your choices. You choose to play a constructive role and prompt significant change . . .. Even when things are really screwed up and people around you are shutting down, giving up, or going negative, you direct your energies toward progress, growth, and learning.
This is the mindset we need to adopt if we’re to play a constructive role in our teams, projects, organizations, and communities.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
An organization is a community of discourse.
Leadership is about shaping the nature of the discourse.
— Robert Kegan
“An organization is a community of discourse,” says psychologist Robert Kegan. “Leadership is about shaping the nature of the discourse.”
When we’re striving to be a constructive variable in an important conversation or meeting, that’s exactly what we’re doing – shaping conversations in a more balanced, purpose-driven, and effective direction. When there’s insufficient candor in a meeting to solve a problem, for example, we engage in a way that aims to increase it. If there’s a lack of curiosity in the meeting, and it’s at risk of escalating into an argument, we engage in a way that slows down the conversation and encourages people to refocus on the issue being explored.
“Leaders today must be agents of change who are willing and able to cross boundaries, connect groups, and orchestrate multidimensional problem solving and change,” says Dean Williams in his book, Leadership for a Fractured World. “Without that kind of leadership, the fractures that separate us will only get worse.” The good news is that we can all exercise leadership in this way. No matter our station or status, we can choose to be a constructive variable.
What’s more, our organizations and our communities are in desperate need of people willing and able to do this – people who can help us build healthier teams, work relationships, and organizations. This is especially true in adaptive circumstances, where collaborative learning is the key to progress.
If you’ve read Influence in Action, you know the case of Steve – a great example of a person taking a calculated risk to make a constructive difference. He chose to address an important problem everyone on his team was talking about privately, but that no one dared raise directly: their boss’s aggressive response to receiving bad news. While giving feedback to your boss is never easy, it’s especially difficult when the feedback is about your boss’s menacing reactions to negative information. You risk falling victim to the very problem you’re trying to solve.
To make matters worse, not only were his colleagues unwilling to address the issue themselves, they urged Steve to avoid it, too. (One of his peers even suggested that raising this issue with their boss would be “career suicide.”) But, despite this advice, Steve used the conversational capacity discipline to initiate a set of challenging conversations that sparked pivotal learning and progress – not only for his boss, but also for Steve and the team.
Playing a constructive role may sound noble and good, but as I mentioned previously, doing it in a consistent way is harder than it seems. It requires a high degree of skill. The problem is that just having good intentions isn’t sufficient. We may intend to play a constructive role in a conversation, but, to act in an effective way, we also need the ability to align our behavior with our intentions under pressure. This can be challenging because of something the late Harvard scholar and practitioner Chris Argyris referred to as skilled incompetence, whereby our automatic, practiced, highly skilled behaviors work directly against our good intentions.
The essence of skilled behavior is that it’s automatic. It’s like driving a car; we don’t have to think about it, we just jump in and go. After years of practice, the act of driving is a predominantly unconscious activity. As it is with driving, so it is with many things in life – with enough practice almost any task becomes second nature.
But, as I explained in my first book, a problem occurs when our practiced, skillful behavior works against our good intentions:
But there’s a downside to such highly skilled behaviors. They’re notoriously hard to recognize and control, which presents a problem when the mindless reactions that serve us well in one context conflict with our good intentions in another. Chris Argyris refers to this problem—when our mindless reactions work against our intentions—as “skilled incompetence.” Take something as simple as crossing the street. Every year people are struck by cars because they look the wrong way before stepping off the curb in a foreign country. If traffic comes from the left in their country, they’ve learned to automatically look left when crossing the street. This skilled response keeps them safe at home, but when they’re visiting a country where the traffic comes from the right, this mindless behavior can get them killed. (This very problem nearly changed the course of world events, when, in 1931, while visiting New York, Winston Churchill exited a taxi on 5th Ave on the Upper East Side. After looking the wrong way, he stepped into traffic and was seriously injured after being hit and dragged by an oncoming car).
It is these skillfully incompetent reactions that often cause our intentions and our behavior to part ways under pressure. We dismiss and argue when we should inquire and listen; and we stay seated and silent when we should stand up and speak out. Again, it’s not that our intentions are bad, it’s that our behavior is “hijacked” by our automatic defensive emotional reactions. (In the emotional intelligence literature this phenomenon is often referred to as an “amygdala hijack.”) When this happens, our behavior and our intentions can quickly part ways.
In certain contexts, the consequences of these disconnects can be severe. We see example after example of co-pilots failing to speak up when they see a pilot making a dangerous mistake operating the aircraft. We see similar problems in healthcare when nurses, despite their good intentions, fail to speak up when they notice a surgeon opening the wrong leg on a patient. (This is often because surgeons and pilots – despite their good intentions – often act in ways that discourage nurses or co-pilots from speaking up.)
The same thing happens all the time in our conversations and meetings. Here’s a description of the problem from my first book, Conversational Capacity, in a chapter titled Intentional Conflicts: Why Good Intentions are Never Enough:
Like a feisty Chihuahua that overestimates his chances against the neighbor’s pit bull, we overrate the power of our intentions because we assume we have the capacity to communicate effectively about difficult subjects and in challenging circumstances. “We’re smart people,” we think to ourselves, “We know what to do and how to do it. What could possibly go wrong?” But this optimistic assessment overlooks two hereditary predispositions that often hijack our intentions—automatically, and sometimes dramatically. These tendencies often work directly against our other intentions, creating intentional conflicts—a clash between opposing objectives in a conversation.
See if you can relate to this short example, again from Conversational Capacity:
Imagine you’re sitting in a meeting where your team is discussing a major decision about an important project. The rest of the team, including your manager, feels strongly about one particular decision, but you don’t agree. As you listen to the way people are thinking, you find you have growing reservations about the direction they’re heading. With much at stake, you want to speak up and raise your concern.
But then you experience an intentional conflict. On the one hand, you feel compelled to speak up, but on the other hand, you don’t want to cause trouble, be labeled a troublemaker or non–team player, tarnish your reputation within the team, or damage relationships. There’s a good chance you don’t even consciously recognize the conflict you’re experiencing; you just feel it. And since the emotional tug of this tendency is so strong, you sit there quietly, covering up your concern, nodding, and feigning agreement. You say nothing.
In this case, the disconnect between our intentions and our behavior is caused by a strong need to minimize the level of negative emotion, discomfort, tension, or risk in a situation. When we fall prey to this reaction, our need to play it safe overwhelms our constructive intentions, and we behave in a way that sacrifices progress and effectiveness for comfort and safety. It’s not a conscious choice. The knee-jerk reaction is automatic, which makes it difficult to recognize and manage.
This tendency to minimize, however, is not the only defensive reaction that can disconnect our actual behavior from our intended purpose:
Imagine you’re back in that meeting where your team is discussing a major decision about an important project, and, just as before, you have major reservations about the direction the discussion is heading. The rest of the team, including your manager, feels strongly about a particular decision, but you don’t agree; you think it’s the worst choice possible. You want to speak up and raise your concern even though you know it won’t be popular.
But this time you experience a different intentional conflict. On one hand, you want to work with the group to make the best decision, but on the other hand, you want the others to see the error of their ways, you want them to make the right decision, you feel a passionate need to save them from their mistake by swaying them to your point of view.
There’s a good chance you don’t consciously recognize this intentional conflict either. You just feel the overpowering need to convince the team there’s a better way to approach the problem. Because the emotional reaction emanating from your lower brain is so strong, you go into behavioral autopilot; raising your voice, putting forward your view in forceful terms, discounting the logic of others, and arguing with anyone who dares to disagree, all in an attempt to “win” the conversation, be right, and get your way.
When we’re hijacked by our need to “win”, our behavior is driven by a competitive, self-serving logic: “This conversation is a zero-sum contest. Someone’s going to win. Someone’s going to lose. I don’t like to lose.” Motivated by our need to be right, our mind shuts and our mouth opens, and we grow increasingly arrogant and argumentative. As our curiosity withers and our certainty expands, we push our agenda on others because our sense of effectiveness is contingent on getting other people to see things our way and agree with us.
If we don’t learn to recognize and rein in these tendencies to minimize and “win,” the reactions they provoke – which derive their energy from the powerful fight-flight response – will continue to derail our good intentions in a skillfully incompetent way.
A heightened ability to monitor and manage these intentional conflicts is important because our work experience is rife with dilemmas that can trigger them:
- What happens when “I don’t want to rock the boat ” conflicts with “But I want to challenge a bad idea”?
- What happens when “I want to give my colleague constructive feedback on their work” conflicts with “But I don’t want to hurt their feelings or damage the relationship”?
- What happens when “I feel compelled to point out that this new policy will severely restrict our ability to do the great work for which we’re known” conflicts with “But if I speak up I might get labeled ‘disloyal’ by management and get a target placed on my back.”
- What happens when “I want to be recognized as a good team player” conflicts with “But I want to point out a problem in the team’s performance”?
- What happens when “I want to point out a flaw in my boss’s analysis” conflicts with “But I don’t want to make a career-limiting move”?
- What happens when “I just want to get along” conflicts with “I just want to make a difference”?
So we need more than noble intentions if we’re to be a constructive variable, we also need a heightened ability to recognize and manage these intentional conflicts, or we’ll regularly shut down when we should speak up, and argue when we should listen, repeatedly proving Daniel Goleman’s point that “out of control emotions make smart people act stupid.”
Out of control emotions make smart people act stupid.
— Daniel Goleman
To act with more consistent effectiveness, we need to increase our skilled competence – the ability to behave in a way that aligns with our intentions. This takes discipline. (If it didn’t, everyone with good intentions would be effective all the time.) Building this discipline requires both an actionable framework and ample practice.
AN ACTIONABLE FRAMEWORK
How do you know that you know something?
When you can produce what it is you claim to know.
— Chris Argyris
The conversational capacity discipline provides a framework with three main areas of practice: emotional, cognitive, and behavioral.
- Emotional: It’s hard to make a constructive difference if we’re emotionally volatile and shut down or heat up under pressure. To paraphrase Goleman, “Out of control emotions make well-intentioned people act in a way that contradicts their good intentions.” We need, therefore, to improve our ability to recognize when our emotional reactions threaten our ability to act in a way that serves our intentions.
- Cognitive: Awareness is a good start. But we also need a clear
mindset – a sharp, guiding focus on what matters most in the conversation or meeting. The conversational capacity mindset serves this very purpose. It serves as a navigational beacon that helps us stay on course even in the confusing fog of a high-pressure situation. With this mindset, our focus isn’t on feeling comfortable or safe, it’s not being right or looking smart, and it’s not on receiving an ego massage – with high conversational capacity our mind is set on learning.
- Behavioral: The last domain of practice is behavioral. We need the ability to align our mouth with our mindset. This takes skills – two candor skills and two curiosity skills, to be precise. The deft use of two candor skills helps us put forward our own view in a clear, accessible way. Two curiosity skills help us get the views of others into the conversation with the same level of clarity and influence with which we’re putting forward our own view.
If making a constructive difference is our intended destination, strengthening our capacity in all three domains is the key to getting there. Without awareness we can’t see; without a mindset we can’t navigate; and without skills we can’t steer.
WORK AS PRACTICE
Conversational capacity is not a magical idea. It’s not a gimmick. You can’t just memorize the ideas, pass a true-false quiz, and declare yourself proficient. It’s a discipline. And, as with any discipline, if you want to build it, you have to put in the practice.
Fortunately, our efforts to play a constructive role in our workplaces and communities provide ample opportunities for that practice. Our goal should be to establish an upward spiral of capacity building and performance, whereby our efforts to make a constructive difference help us build our conversational capacity, and our higher conversational capacity improves our ability to make a constructive difference.
So while it’s impossible to control all the messy variables in a conversation or meeting, as we increase our ability to work in the sweet spot we can take more and more responsibility for being a constructive variable. By building our conversational capacity, we’re able to approach even the most challenging situations in a way that provokes more learning than defensiveness, more head-nodding than eye-rolling, more focusing on the problem and less killing of the messenger. We can do this because we not only have constructive intentions; we’re able to behave in a way that supports those intentions.
Is it hard work? Sure. But it’s even harder to avoid the work and continually suffer the consequences of our skilled incompetence.
Leaders today must be agents of change who are willing and able to cross boundaries, connect groups, and orchestrate multidimensional problem solving and change.
Without that kind of leadership, the fractures that separate us will only get worse.
— Dean Williams
There’s another benefit to putting in the practice. Using our efforts to make a difference to build our conversational competence in this way gives us more purpose at work. We don’t get excited about perpetuating the mediocrity in our teams and organizations. We don’t relish the experience of being a passive pawn in a process. We yearn to be engaged in meaningful work. We want to play a productive role. We’re eager to be part of a team that is performing well, and we want to contribute to that performance in a demonstrable way. Learning to be a constructive variable does just that. It creates a more profound work experience because we’re not just working to make money – we’re working to make a difference. And, as an additional bonus, we’re building a foundational discipline that will serve us well beyond the workplace, making us better family members, friends, neighbors, and community members.
If part of leadership is shaping conversations so they’re more balanced, productive, and learning-focused, then we all have the ability to exercise leadership – no matter our status or station. What’s more, our messy world is in great need of people who can do this – people willing to build their conversational capacity and then using that ability to make a constructive difference. This is obvious in high-stakes industries like healthcare and aviation, but it’s equally important for everyone to play a constructive role – fully engaged, taking responsibility, and bringing their A-game to the enterprise – no matter their organization or industry.
Our job in life is to make a positive difference, not prove we’re right.
— Peter Drucker
One person with this constructive mindset – and the conversational capacity to put it into action – can make a demonstrable difference in a conversation or meeting. But, if just one person with this mindset can make a difference, imagine the power of an organization filled with people all striving to play a constructive role in their meetings, teams, and projects.
To wrap up, here is a brief outline of the key ideas in this article:
- It’s a choice: We can’t control every variable in a conversation or meeting. But we can choose to be a constructive variable.
- Capacity building: To play a consistently constructive role, however, we must build our capacity for aligning our good intentions and our actual behavior in circumstances that conspire against it. This takes practice.
- Performance as practice. The good news is that the very work of trying to make a difference provides ongoing opportunities for our practice.
- Upward spiral. The goal is to establish a virtuous cycle, whereby our efforts to be a constructive variable provide us with the practice to build our conversational capacity, and that higher capacity, in turn, makes us more effective in our efforts to be a constructive variable.
- Performing solo: One person with this constructive mindset – and the capacity to put it into action – can make a demonstrable difference in a conversation or meeting.
- Performing together: But, while one person with this constructive mindset can make a demonstrable difference, imagine the power of a team or organization filled with people all striving to play an increasingly constructive role in their meetings, teams, and projects.
When you cease to make a contribution, you begin to die.
— Eleanor Roosevelt
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
We all need to strengthen our conversational capacity if we want to play a productive role when it counts. So what is the work you need to do to strengthen your mental, emotional, and social agility so that when you choose to exercise leadership – whether from a position of authority or not – you’ll be more open, balanced, and purposeful? To help you answer that question, here are a few questions to consider:
- In what ways do my impulsive emotional reactions undermine my ability to make a constructive contribution?
- Under what circumstances – personally and professionally – do I tend to be overly guarded and cautious when I should be candid and courageous?
- Under what circumstances do I tend to be closed-minded and cantankerous when I should be curious and humble?
- How conscious, consistent, and constructive is the mindset I bring to important conversations and meetings?
- What behaviors do I need to strengthen so I am better equipped to align my behavior with my constructive intentions?
Want to learn more about how to make a constructive difference? Here are a few more resources to check out:
What is Conversational Capacity and Why does it Matter?
Conversational Capacity: The Secret to Building Successful Teams that Perform when the Pressure is On
Influence in Action: How to Build your Conversational Capacity, do Meaningful Work, and Make a Powerful Difference.
Real Leadership: Helping People and Organizations Face Their Toughest Challenges
Conversational Capacity and Psychological Safety
Conversational Capacity® and the “Diversity Bonus”
Yes to the Mess
If you’d like to learn more about conversational capacity, and how to build it, visit ConversationalCapacity.com, or https://www.kenblanchard.com/Solutions/Conversational-Capacity
This article was originally published on Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/constructive-variable-craig-weber/