“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”—Martin Luther King Jr.
The ability to listen is a vital and often overlooked leadership skill. Listening is not just hearing what someone is saying but instead striving to understand their meaning by considering their tone, body language, and facial expression. In broad terms, useful conversations have three parts: background, discussion, and conclusion.
Usually, leaders drive the background of a conversation. When something occurs that gives you a reason for starting the conversation, you should set the context, objectives, and overall tone. Although you may be doing most of the talking, as a good leader you should enable the other party to frame whatever issue/problem/challenge prompted the conversation and to hopefully meet your objectives for the conversation. Effective leaders provide the context, background, and shared understanding that facilitates effective communication and dialogue.
Typically, the discussion is the longest and most intense part of a conversation as participants exchange ideas and thoughts. During the discussion, a leader has two roles: facilitation and group understanding. An effective technique for facilitation and understanding is to ask questions and not make statements. For example, when someone brings up a point, you could say, “So my understanding is this. Is this correct?” Or you could ask, “What are the challenges with this approach?” A key part of getting a group to buy into a solution or approach is to ensure everyone participates. So, you should be aware of who may not be participating, then ask them, “What do you think? Do you agree with the approach?” It is important that all opinions and ideas are brought up during the discussion when everyone is present. You should listen to all opinions, digest what is being said, and steer conversations to ensure that you meet or exceed the goals you’ve set during the background. Not all questions set out in the background get answered during a conversation; as a leader, you must ensure all participants stay on point. You must keep the conversation on point, stopping it when it participants get too far off the topic or too bogged down in details that should be discussed elsewhere. When conversations diverge from the background, in addition to keeping them on track, you can offer to schedule another meeting for that topic down the road. Effective leaders influence (but do not dominate) conversations, ensure the full participation of others so that everyone’s thoughts and ideas can be shared, and ensure that there are answers or next actions to answer objectives outlined in the background.
To ensure maximum results, all conversations—even short ones—should conclude with a quick wrap-up to review action items, deadlines, and responsible parties. By concluding conversations this way, participants will leave with clear expectations and understandings, helping you achieve positive outcomes. To ensure that they get the most out of conversations, effective leaders provide clear deadlines, outcomes, expectations, and summaries.