5 Common ways to sabotage an open conversation and what to do instead

In coaching an executive, I had an interesting conversation that is a great illustration of how easy it is to sabotage the same thing you want. Because I’m sure this is a common phenomenon, I’m sharing my thoughts with you.

Let’s call this executive Ben. His organization has experienced many changes over the past 3 years. He sees a big need to reorganize jobs and functions in his side of the organization in order to cope with the changes in a more effective way. He said to me:

“My dream is to be able to sit together with my direct reports. As colleagues who have worked together for many years I want us to have an open and honest dialogue about the organization and our future.”

So far, so good. Yet, Ben also shared he wants to be open, but not give the impression that he is asking for their permission or approval. He wants an open dialogue, but he wants to make “his” ideas about what needs to be done “as palatable as possible.” My thought was: “Too many ‘buts’!”

To me it sounded as if he genuinely wanted an open dialogue, yet, at the same time, he was sabotaging any possibility of an open dialogue.

Can leaders really embrace the risk of an open dialogue. Can you trust the process of dialogue? If so, how can you stop sabotaging and instead create a space that will facilitate an open dialogue?

Through our conversation, this is what we found many leaders do to sabotage:

1. Being confused about what is it you need to have a dialogue about.

Ben knew he wanted to have an open dialogue, about the future of the organization. Because that was such a broad topic, he was not sure how to have that conversation.

What to do instead? Be clear! I asked Ben enough questions to clarify what was the main need, the non-negotiable issue. Through that process he realized it was the need for reorganization of jobs and functions in order to meet increased demands in production. That was the challenge they were facing. That is what the dialogue needed to be about. The dialogue is not about “the future;” it’s not about who is going to do what. It’s about how to meet the demands of increased production without sacrificing quality and deadlines. It’s about efficiency and costumer care. The HOW to get there is what they need to figure out after.

2. Creating or not addressing fears.  

If people are worrying about job security, loss of money, confidentiality, or future consequences, it will be difficult for them to be open. Those were fears circulating around in Ben’s organization. As a result, people were not willing to risk having an open conversation about anything.

What to do instead? Address possible fears. Ben assured me nobody was going to loose jobs or have reduced pay. Therefore, I suggested it was important for him to share this fact with his people. It was also important to create a safe space by offering reassurance about the confidentiality of the conversation.

3. Talking too much.

Leaders, with the best intentions, tend to say too much and listen too little. The more you talk about a subject, the less interaction you will create. People will think you are not open to any input, especially if you are making a complete "presentation" about your idea.

What to do instead? Ask open questions that can encourage creativity and generate energy. In this case, it could be questions like: Given our present challenges, how can we restructure our side of the organization? What is the best way to optimize resources? How can we utilize our best talents? How can we facilitate efficiency and quality? Questions like these ones will open the space for creative thinking and meaning making.

4.  Lack of trust in the wisdom of the group

Ben asked me a question that shows a very common fear I frequently hear from leaders. "What if I can’t live with what they come up with?" My answer was that he needs to trust the process of dialogue. 

What to do instead? Trust the process of dialogue. I reminded him that he was going to be an integral part of the group. Most likely, when a highly skilled group bring their experience and knowledge to have a conversation together, what they come up with will be better than anything any of them could design alone.

5.  Not knowing how to facilitate an open conversation

Many leaders are great at telling people what to do and coming up with brilliant ideas that need to be implemented. Most have no training on how to facilitate an open conversation that will maximize the wisdom of the group. That was the case with Ben.

What to do instead? Guard the process of dialogue. Very wisely, Ben asked me if I could be available in short notice to go down and join them to facilitate the process, and show them how this can work. The reason why this was a good idea is that when I’m there to facilitate the process, people are free to think and create as equals. Nobody needs to worry about bringing the group to order if they go on a tangent, or making sure everybody is listening and is listen to. When people can concentrate in making meaning together, the end results are usually excellent. 

By getting away from sabotaging what he wanted to create, Ben created the proper conditions, and his desire to have an open and honest dialogue came through and brought great results.

Remember. . .

Desiring to have an open dialogue is a good beginning. But it’s not enough. You need to create the conditions that will facilitate the dialogue. Then you need to trust the process and let the dialogue happen. LEARN how I can help you facilitate such a dialogue. 

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