Leading others is a right that we earn. And once we’ve earned it, we need to keep practicing those behaviors and skills that got us there. Ms Smug and Mr Complacent have no place here.

Every Conversation is a Negotiation

But before we get into the nitty gritty of how we begin to earn our right to lead, consider this leadership fundamental: “Every conversation is a negotiation”.

Here’s how it opens up possibilities:

  • We focus on the dialogue, not the result
  • We invite exploration, instead of stubbornness
  • We gift the chance to contribute

It’s the act of negotiating in conversations that is the point here. Where the conversation goes or what the result is…? That’s another piece of leadership – being open to possibilities and feeling comfortable with ambiguity.

Feed the Feeling of Reward

Easy enough concept. Damn hard to practice. So my ask of you is to start in places where you have the most invested – with family, friends and close colleagues. That way you can relish in full delight at how different and rich those interactions start to feel – how much more you draw people towards you and how much more you end up discovering about the other person.

Once you know how that can feel, cast your net wider – approach workplace conversations as negotiations. Asking others for their perspective and opinion is like giving them a gift. And when you gift, they gift back and perhaps eventually ‘gift forward’.

Speaking of questions…

Eight Questions You Need to Answer & Ask

I’m going to assume that, like 99% of humans, you too assume that your team knows what you expect of them. I could be wrong of course and you’ll tell me if I am, right?

But seriously, here’s what you should be answering for your team on a regular basis:

  1. What do I expect from you?
  2. What are you doing well?
  3. What, if anything, can you be doing better?
  4. What, if anything, do I want you to do better?
  5. What will happen if you improve?
  6. What will happen if you don’t improve?

And two questions that you need to be asking of your team at the same time are:

What are your thoughts about what I’ve said so far?

How can I help?

These are your gifts and your invitation for them to contribute to the negotiation of the conversation.

Do your homework.

Before you meet with each member of your team, have your answers to these questions already penciled and use them as an agenda for your meeting with them.

Short, regular and informal.

By the way, big organizations like Netflix and Adobe, are heeding the latest research and thought leadership on engagement. Evidence is showing us that short, regular and informal conversations pays way more dividends in terms of organizational results than formal meetings once or twice a year.

Play the long game, make it a priority.

This is challenging to us because we have to rethink what we consider important in our day. Leaders understand growth takes time and are placing higher priority on regular chats as a core activity of their job.

How Judging Gets in the Way

Kathryn Schulz’s deeply researched, fascinating and well-written tome “Being Wrong – Adventures in the Margin of Error” is a wonderful mirror on human behavior.

In talking about our minds and our beliefs, Schulz explains a common sequence that we go through when someone disagrees with us. It looks something like this:

  • Ignorant: When someone first disagrees with us we conclude that it’s just because they don’t have the right information.
  • Idiot: When they still don’t agree with us, we concede that they’re just not using their brain properly.
  • Evil: And finally, when they persist in disagreeing with us, they must be wilfully choosing to deny it.

It’s easy to fall into these classic judgements, especially when we are fixated on our own pre-determined ideal outcome.

Remember our filter: Every conversation is a negotiation? It’s a multi-dimensional interaction involving facts, emotions and memories. We come to a point by many circuits. Let me show you with a simple example.

If I asked you why you prefer dogs to cats (or vice versa!), where does your mind race to?

You might say dogs are more loyal, you grew up having dogs, they played with you when you felt lonely or sad, they taught you responsibility. And so I ask you, where’s the single dimension in your response? In your answer, I hear facts, emotions and memories or experiences.

So I might remind you that you find their hairs in your breakfast bowl and after they poop they come and sit on your sofa. Can I change your mind about liking dogs? Unlikely.

Can we reach an agreement that there are pros and cons of owning a dog? Yes. Can we design solutions for dog owners based on our common knowledge of dogs? Definitely.

Call on your capacity for compassion and multi-dimensional thinking.

As a leader within an organization, what’s important is that we don’t fall foul of judging our team members in this way, especially when they disagree with us.

How To Respond When We Disagree

Simple science. When we are all in agreement, emotions of happiness and possibility drive us towards feeling more connected to each other. Collaboration is effortless.

Conversely, disagreeing typically presents challenging emotions – anger, frustration, disappointment. The hormones now flooding our brains, they shut down our capacity for logical thinking. Emotions rule.

Current auto response. And because we have no “methodology” for working through disagreements, we stumble. Words come out wrong. Our tone is harsh. Our body language becomes defensive. Or, we go silent – we push back in our seats and decide we’re too angry to say anything or we don’t trust what will come out.

But what if you had a methodology for disagreements that kicked in as automatically as saying “please” and “thank you”? Here’s one that my clients love because it’s easy to practice.

New intentional response. The more you practice this method (below), the more easily you can call on it before your emotions get the first mover advantage.

Probe for clarity before you share your position. Making time for a coffee together can help set the tone and pace the conversation.

Step 1. “I hear you and understand…”

Until you acknowledge their feelings you cannot secure their appetite for dialogue.

Step 2. “I like the bits you said about…”

Finding common ground builds trust and tells them you are listening. Focusing on the areas of agreement prevents you making the dialogue about areas you disagree about – once you have built trust, at a later point you can ask (if still relevant), “What would be a good way to explore A, B and C?”

Step 3. “What’s brought you to this point?”

Giving them the floor validates their contribution and defuses hot emotions. As mentioned earlier, our points of view are multi-dimensional involving facts, emotions and memories.

Still disagree..?

So, let’s recap so far: you’ve acknowledged them, you’ve made them feel heard, you’ve found common ground, the defenses are lowered, and the dialogue has allowed for facts (with emotions) to be put on the table. You may now have a way forward that is more collaborative. Or you may still disagree, so these next steps have critical importance.

Step 4. “Are you open to my thoughts?”

This is asking to be invited into the contribution, collaboration arena. It is also clarifying whether your contribution is actually being asked for. Too often we assume the floor is open for opinions when, in actuality, the topic was raised “For information only”. Start with points of commonality and agree a way for addressing the points you find challenging, “What would be a good way to explore A, B and C?”

Step 5. “Have you spoken with…?”

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter what we say at this point. Now the time might be ripe for guiding them toward further research or other people who can help them validate their thinking.

This helps to remove any bias you or they may have, and may even bring new facts to light for everyone. View this as an exploratory exercise and an opportunity for that individual to expand their own networks as part of the process.

Don’t forget to check back in with them to ask what they have discovered.

We’re leading people, not processes. That demands that we invest in shifting our behaviours so that we are more approachable, people are drawn to us and those around us are empowered. Processes don’t care – people do.