Breaking down one big, tricky conversation or scary conversation into phases can relieve the pressure to agree or fix something in one scheduled conversation. The key phases are the socialising phase, the creative alignment phase, and the contracting phase. Complex, strategic or politically charged situations may need more time and multiple loops within each phase.
The Socialising Phase
The socialising phase is a relatively low risk stage that’s great for gauging the strength of people’s opinions or reactions to your idea. What might you be stepping into? Who is attached to the status quo or the outcome and why? It’s good to know how deep the water is, where the swells are and how strong the undercurrents are!
You can ask a few simple questions like, “What are your thoughts on…?” “Have we considered…?” You might have a few of these socialising conversations with lots of different stakeholders and decision-makers to map out the landscape. This will help you work out what your next move needs to be.
The Creative Alignment Phase
The creative alignment phase takes you to the next level of definition. What are people’s positions and why? What concerns do they have? Where are the risks? What could go wrong? What could go great? What’s the best approach? Why would those affected by it support it?
The socialising phase would inform you about who these creative alignment conversations need to happen with. So you might talk to a smaller group of people or just one person. Again, you might find you need to have a few rounds of creative alignment conversations.
Permission to play a different role in conversations
Creative alignment is about uncovering the feelings, reservations and motivations people have about the situation or the approach or the impact and the facts, the evidence and the data. Basically, anything that could cause your initiative to fail, you want to know about it. And equally, anything that could help speed up things is precious and valuable to know.
A large part of your role in creative alignment conversations — and possibly the most effective and influential — is to ask questions that help people think more deeply about the topic. How you do this is important. If people feel judged and under pressure to say something smart or to come up with solutions straight away, they can’t be creative and generous. There’s too much cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones) in their system.
Two important things to mention here — and leaders who coach will recall their own learning in appreciating these.
- You don’t need to have all the answers and sometimes it’s easier to be detached and less triggered by what people say because you don’t have the answers, and
- Don’t jump into ‘solutioning’ yet. Whatever you come up with at this stage is not likely to be innovative or collaborative but heavily biased towards normal ways of doing things. This may draw lower levels of commitment or ownership from others.
There you go. I’ve just given you permission to not have an opinion and not have a solution. (And breathe.) You are welcome.
You can’t hurry trust, you just have to wait
You can’t rush this exchange of ideas and positions because it relies on building trust between you and your conversation partners. They may want to see what you do with the initial information they share with you before they give any more.
Another reason we shouldn’t rush the creative alignment phase of conversations is that time to reflect is a really important part of the thinking and evaluating process. Our brains need that time to make connections and come to a new level of awareness. Some realisations are only possible when we’re doing something else, and some positions soften towards alternative possibilities. They become more familiar, often just because we’ve had time to sit with them for longer.
It means that when we next come together to continue the conversation, we can be more nuanced and more considered. Possibly even more open to other people’s ideas that, at first, we rejected.
If you’re thinking, “But that’s so slow. I just want to get in there and get stuff done,” then this might help.
Think of it as an approach that encourages generosity and emotional connection in your conversations. The more generous people feel, the more likely they are to share their best ideas with you. And the stronger the emotional connection between you, the quicker you’ll be able to work through the harder parts of negotiating and contracting.
So slower now, perhaps, but quicker and stronger later.
Enjoy the people you’re in conversation with
Plus give yourself permission to enjoy just being in conversation with others, learning how they think and finding out what’s important to them. This is just as important aspect of leadership as strategising and getting stuff done. And it will show up in your manner, the way to make people feel and how loyal they feel towards you.
And it’s critical to the next phase, the contracting phase.
The Contracting Phase
The contracting phase is where we come to an agreement with all parties to the conversation and decision-making. It’s where we negotiate and trade, make requests of each other and offer assurances. Divide up the work and responsibilities, agree the resources needed and the people to do the work. Discuss the consequences of good outcomes and bad ones, define the key messages and explanations of why. And consider options and alternatives should we need to course-correct or react to an unexpected or unlikely turn of events.
These contracting conversations are calorie-burning conversations. If you’ve built up trust and powerful levels of emotional connection with people, then contracting will be a truly enjoyable calorie-burning phase — you’ll feel energised and hopeful. If you haven’t, then this phase will be stressful, conflict-ridden, and physically and emotionally draining — if you get to this phase at all.
Conversation Phases Are Not Linear
Conversations go forwards, backwards, and sideways. They can take turns no-one expected. Some stages need repeating. They can stall and they can breakdown. Conversations can take hours, days, weeks or even months — certainly the more complex or tricky topics will take longer.
As well as giving you more influence with people, stronger emotional connections will help things go smoother and move quicker.
Having a strategy for your conversations, understanding that people need to go through emotional states and thinking stages. And seeing your role as an enabler of the process will go a long way towards reducing your frustration and anxiety towards others and the big/tricky/scary conversations.