Conversational Leadership


We know that all great results start with conversations for action.  Leadership is, at it’s core, the art of conversation.

I work with many executives on the distinct types of conversations leaders can have to generate the results and culture they wish to create.  But what happens when you’re in a conversation and you can’t figure out how to get out of it? Perhaps you’re networking, and the person you’re talking to is talking your ear off and you’re done and want to exit? Or you might be cornered by an employee who has more drama to share than you have time to sit through.  Or you find yourself in an awkward exchange with a peer? In Sean Illing’s article in Vox, How to Walk Away from an Awkward Conversation, a psychologist explains why we usually get stuck.

A study by a group of psychologists published in March throws some light on these dynamics. The researchers monitored more than 900 conversations and asked participants to report how they felt about the interaction, when they wanted it to end, and when they thought the other person wanted it to end. The findings won’t surprise you: Conversations “almost never ended when both conversants wanted them to” and “rarely ended when even one conversant wanted them to.” It turns out that, on average, conversations lasted about twice as long as people desired.

Crazy, right?

As a leader, there are two things to watch for and pay attention to in terms of knowing when to skillfully end conversations:

  1. Is the other person done and ready to go? Are their eyes glazing over, or are they distracted by their phone or staring at something in the distance?
  2. Are you feeling antsy to get going but don’t know when or how to say it?

In both cases, noticing is the first step.  Once you notice that one of you has reached the moment where the conversation has run it’s natural course, you as the leader can find the soonest appropriate time to state the ending of this conversation.  The article suggests thinking of conversations as a highway.  You can’t just exit the minute you want to, you’ll end up in a ditch. You have to wait for the next exit.

Once you notice it’s time to end, watch or listen for the nearest exit.  Then, politely say something like, “I’d love to talk with you further another time, however now I’ve got to get going.”

Or your own version of that. Polite, succinct, and then leave. Easy-peasy!  It’s the timing that is worth navigating properly for the sake of the relationship.

Comments (48)

Outstanding post, Suzi! Executives would benefit to become more skilled at the purpose, value and distinction between communication and conversation.

Thank you, Sayre! You’re quite right!

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