As a leader, have you ever had an inconclusive conversation with colleagues about how they are going to address an issue that has arisen? Did it leave you feeling uncertain, unclear on the outcomes and actions?
Understanding the arc of conversations and having useful questions to hand can change all this.
Here’s our simple four-step guide to navigating that arc and cutting the confusion.
1. Start with the end
Do you ever – to borrow from author and expert Stephen Covey – start with ‘the end in mind’?
One thing I’ve observed when working with groups to problem-solve and find solutions is how often they dive in without getting clear on what needs to be different.
What are you aiming for?
What would be a desirable outcome?
What would success look like?
If this was working perfectly, what would it look like/be like?
What are our aspirations here?
These questions help get a clear picture of the intended direction or outcome. Establishing that end point can really assist the group or individual to focus their attention and ask questions that expand the detail, explore possibilities and build on ideas that lead to the shaping of feasible options to research further, try out and implement.
2. Map the pathway
Knowing that there is an arc to such conversations can make them more focused and impactful. Think of it as a route map if you like.
Once you’re clear on what the outcome is, you can move into exploring the topic.
What do you need to do make that desirable outcome a reality?
What’s happening in the environment that might sabotage or support it?
What might the options, opportunities or obstacles be?
What else is possible, plausible and preferable?
What questions, queries and quantifiables need addressing?
Questions are powerful allies and can generate divergent thinking.
Being willing to stay in the question, be open-minded rather than judging, criticizing, or jumping to conclusions and ask questions for which you don’t have the answers creates a great atmosphere. It enables people to operate more from the pre-frontal cortex part of the brain, where new ideas, insights and inspiration lie. You literally are firing on all cylinders – and to most people that feels energizing.
3. Into the nitty gritty
Once ideas have been generated and fleshed out, you can transition to the ‘how’, and define action points and time frames.
What will be done?
What additional support or resources are required?
Specifying clear next steps helps create ownership, commitment and accountability.
4. The vital step
For most people, the conversation ends there and yet in many ways it’s only the beginning. Refinements, improvements, personal insights and learning come from the final stage of reviewing. Usually this is a separate conversation that takes places days or weeks later, once time has lapsed for the actions to be taken.
I’m reminded of Reg Revan’s equation L≥C that states ‘learning must be equal to or greater that the rate of change’.
What that means is for a business or organisation to survive (let alone thrive) it must learn at a greater rate than the rate of change in which it operates. But in our fast-paced, action-orientated world this phase often gets missed.
Taking time to review provides an opportunity for individuals and the team to identify what worked, glean insights and learn from their experiences. Sharing such learning can have collective and business benefits, developing people at the same time.
Next time you’re in a meeting or having a one-to-one, think about applying the arc of conversation.
If you’d like more help with questioning skills, we’ve created a Question Bank: a quick and easy-to-use set of open prompts to support teams and leaders in developing and practicing their skills. To find out how they can help you, go here.