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Ten Things to Know to Successfully Surf Leadership Conversations

As leaders, one of our most important roles is to create results through productive conversations. Actually, having meaningful conversations and attaining results are primarily what we’re paid to do.

I listened recently to Susan Casey, author of “Voice in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins,” explain what it’s like to witness surfers riding a 60-foot wave up close, and her personal experience of riding a 40-foot wave on the back of a wave runner as part of her research for the book. One thing she learned is that being in a life-or-death situation does not allow time to feel fear or any other emotion. If you aren’t entirely present with mind and body, a mistake in judgment or a split second of second-guessing could result in terrible injury or death.

While not life-or-death, meaningful conversations require the same amount of attentiveness to avoid a wipe-out. Like waves, different types of conversations entail different approaches. For example, conversations about specific tasks that have to happen in order to meet a deadline will be more structured, have a specific agenda and focus on project management. If you are making a decision, you may have a conversation that solicits someone’s point of view, and you may not have a specific outcome but simply be in an information-gathering mode. Or you might be conveying the decision and determining what others need to successfully execute the decision. Tough conversations will have better results if you know how open the other person is to feedback or how they might receive your information, so that you can anticipate how you will react to their reactions.

A number of models are available that describe specific conversation types, and I recommend studying effective conversations as an essential part of any leader’s toolkit. To “hang ten” as you enter into an important conversation, here are ten things you should know, for improved outcomes and stronger relationships:

  1. The purpose of the conversation, including what you want to get out of it
  2. What the consequences of this conversation may be
  3. Who the right person is for the conversation
  4. What your conversation partner might want out of the exchange
  5. How you want to approach the conversation that sets you both up for success
  6. A plan for the tone, timing, emotional reactions and receptivity of yourself and the other person.
  7. What you will do to keep the conversation open
  8. How you will gain agreement and move forward
  9. How you will end the conversation
  10. How you and the other person will follow up

​After the conversation, reflect on what went well and what could have been better. By taking time to go through this step, you will improve your communication skills and your effectiveness in being able to hold meaningful and successful conversations.

The more alert and aware you are in the conversation, and the more present you are to the other person’s situation and point of view, the less gnarly your ride on the leadership wave will be.