Clear, healthy communication is necessary for relationship building and operational efficiency in organizations, but it doesn’t always happen. Whether it’s people not speaking up in meetings or opting for backchannel conversations, many fall short of ideal communication.
We recently brought in Craig Weber, author of “Conversational Capacity,” to speak with our staff about how to communicate more effectively.
Weber uses a framework called Conversational Capacity®, which is the ability to have constructive, learning-focused dialogue.
Conversational capacity is the ability to have constructive, learning-focused dialogue.
When people have high conversational capacity, they can work together well—even if they dislike each other. When people have low conversational capacity, they’ll struggle to collaborate and communicate—even if they get along.
How to measure conversational capacity on a team
While there’s no assessment to measure conversational capacity, it’s pretty simple to pick up on—especially when working with a team in a stressful environment.
There are two telltale symptoms that conversational capacity is too low on your team:
- Things are undiscussable.
- Things are unproductive.
If you notice that your team is unable to broach certain topics, they may need to develop more effective communication skills. If issues boomerang from one meeting to the next without resolution, your communication skills need some work.
If high conversational capacity is so desirable, what keeps us from developing these critical communication skills?
Why we struggle with communication
Weber suggested we’re wired to respond to conflict in one of two ways: by minimizing or by trying to “win” the conversation.
What happens when we minimize
Those with a tendency to minimize try to keep things safe and comfortable. They may dismiss their views ( “I’m not even sure why I’m bringing this up, but what if we did X?”), feign agreement, change the subject, or use email or hallway conversations to discuss issues rather than address them face to face. This tendency is akin to the fight or flight response.
The trouble with minimizing is when we hold back our opinions, we deny the team the opportunity to work through healthy conflict. While conflict tends to have a negative connotation, it’s necessary for teams to learn how to work through disagreements in a healthy and productive manner so they can commit to a decision and take action.
What happens when we try to “win” conversations
Conversely, some people are wired to “throw flames.” We’ve all witnessed this—folks who feel the need to “win” the conversation or prove themselves right. Their voice gets louder, they may leverage rank or expertise (“I know more about this than you do”), or speak in hyperbole (“We may as well shut down the business if we decide to do this.”)
The ramifications of this kind of behavior are many: decision-making becomes more difficult, other team members feel uncomfortable expressing their opinion during meetings, and working relationships are damaged.
Weber shared that while we may tend to lean more toward one of these behaviors than the other, no one is purely a minimizer or purely a winner. We each do a bit of both depending on how strongly we feel about the issue, our emotional state, and our perceived level of expertise relative to the rest of the people in the room.
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How we can improve communication
What’s the solution? How do we avoid minimizing or trying to “win” a conversation?
Weber offered a number of practical suggestions:
Pay attention to your natural tendencies.
You can’t change your personality, but you can be more conscious of your actions and act more intentionally. Try taking note of your triggers to increase awareness, then start to manage your reactions.
Pay attention to how others are acting.
Self-awareness plays a critical role in improving communication—and so does an awareness of how others around you are reacting. Are they maintaining eye contact, or are they disengaged? Does their body language read open, or is their posture communicating self-preservation? What does their facial expression tell you about how receptive they are to the communication? What’s happening with their body—are they leaning in to engage or leaning away?
Set aside your preferences.
When it comes to teamwork, you have to be willing to set aside your desire to minimize or win to make the smartest, most effective, most well-informed choice to move forward. While it may be uncomfortable, it’s ultimately how we improve communication and decision-making.
In Weber’s Conversational Capacity framework, candor and curiosity are the keys to maintaining effective communication. Candor, or open and honest expression, is the solution to minimizing.
If your tendency is to minimize, replace your habitual behaviors with these two candor skills:
- State your position clearly in one to two sentences.
- Express the thinking behind it. What data or evidence did you consider, and how did you interpret it?
Good communicators don’t just talk. If your tendency is to try to “win” conversations, curiosity will help balance out that tendency. Put your listening skills to the test and practice curiosity with these tips:
- Bounce your thinking against other people who see things differently. Invite pushback (“I’d like to hear from others—especially those who see it differently”).
- Inquire into another view (“I appreciate your candor. Tell me where you’re coming from.”) Ask as many questions as you need to understand someone’s opinion.
Entertain a different perspective.
Hearing from others helps you broaden your perspective and make the best possible decision. On our own, we can fall prey to our blind spots. Together, we get a much better view of the issue at hand.
Here are some questions for your team to consider:
- What are others seeing about this issue that I am missing?
- What am I seeing that others are missing?
- What are we all missing? What’s our collective blind spot?
At the end of the day, responsibility for communication has to come from all parties. Working with your team to increase conversational capacity will improve your overall team dynamic, increase productivity, and create more engaged employees.