Whenever we present an opportunity to speak freely we run the risk of people taking advantage of the opportunity. 

I watch leaders do this with their teams with the intent to create trust by being transparent in their communication and granting their staff the same respect. However, this can backfire and I have seen some really appalling behavior when adults are given the space to express themselves and use it as a platform for their personal agendas. 

We avoid tough conversations or topics for fear of creating conflict, or we lack the courage or the skills to mediate the unexpected. We are afraid that someone will say something that offends someone else and the next thing you know you’re getting a call from HR. So what do we do? We play safe and nice. We want everyone to sit down in the boat and don’t rock it. 

What stands in the way of healthy dialogue?

In her book Dare to Lead, Brené Brown writes that senior leadership believes they need braver leaders and a more courageous culture in order to create open and healthy conversations. As leaders, we dream of leading teams where trust and respect are the norms and we can have open and candid conversations without someone taking something said as a personal attack. But reality says otherwise. 

Dr. Brown does an amazing job of deep-diving into this topic. What I’m going to do is try to isolate one or two behaviors as a leader you can start to develop or enhance to achieve healthy dialogue and radical candor with your team and your peers. 

Healthy dialogue 

Let’s start with some definitions. The University of Washington developed a handy tool that you can download and save that defines the differences between several forms of communication. I like how they defined dialogue:

“In dialogue, one listens to the other side(s) in order to understand and find meaning, and points of connection. Dialogue involves a real concern for the other person and seeks to not alienate but yet speak what is true for oneself. In dialogue, one searches for strengths in the other positions. Dialogue creates an openness to learning from mistakes and biases.

Dialogue remains open-ended. In dialogue, finding common ground is the goal.”

Dr. Brown refers to the heart of daring leadership as the ability to rumble with vulnerability. What she means is a conversation where the leader leads with vulnerability and curiosity. The ability to roll up the sleeves, not to fight, to get into the trenches to engage and guide the conversation. To be an authentic leader who is brave and empathic to both the concerns and the people.

Healthy dialogue is about being brave and empathic. To be able to have difficult conversations, to engage in dialogue about change, challenges, continuous improvement, team culture including diversity and inclusion, and professional development, both yours and your staff.

Radical candor

When you use the word radical, red flags emerge from everywhere. In reality, this is what makes healthy dialogue work. In her book Radical Candor, Kim Scott discusses how important it is to have good relationships at work. I’m not talking about the good old boys club, or the mean girls club, or inviting staff over for a barbecue in the backyard, and forget the pool party, please. Work relationships revolve around developing trust and respect, honoring each other for their differences and opinions, suspending judgment, and encouraging collaboration.   

When you think about being brave and empathic think about Kim’s approach, care personally, and challenge directly.

Care personally

Care personally means you need to show up as your authentic or whole self. The days of the corporate bureaucratic model of leadership where the leader is the autocratic boss are no longer effective. The autocratic boss, the one who uses and leads with command and control, position, or title is no longer effective and is actually destructive, micromanaging, and demoralizing. 

When you care personally for your staff, you share who you are with your staff and encourage your staff to do the same. Is there a risk? Yes. 

  • You risk being empathic with your staff, when you agree with them when something isn’t right instead of taking the company position of this is how we do it here. 
  • You risk being human when you tell them, yes, this change makes you frustrated or angry too. 
  • You risk being authentic when you tell your staff when your boss instant messages you to come to their office with no idea why, you get flooded with anxiety. Then you apologize to your staff for doing the same thing to them and vow to not do that to them anymore. 
  • You risk being a person when you share you are working through some personal stuff and ask them to be patient with you. 

When your staff sees you showing up as your authentic self there is a good chance your team will start doing the same. This is why you need the space and trust to work together.

Challenge directly

Challenge directly doesn’t mean beating up your staff every chance you get. It’s how you tell your staff their work could be better. How do you tell a team member they didn’t get the promotion because of some performance issues? Deciding who does what on the team will cause some hard feelings. Kim Scott says that challenging people usually makes them mad and defensive and might look like a poor way to build relationships or show that you care.

Kim goes on to say that challenging people is a way to show them that you care as their leader. It is the combination of caring personally and challenging directly. When done right, radical candor and healthy dialogue can enhance trust and open the door wider to effective and productive communication. 

Exercise | Deliberate practice

Well that all sounds great on paper, so here’s the hard part, it’s your job to make healthy dialogue happen. So where do you start?

Create the space where it happens

You need to create and maintain the space for healthy dialogue to occur. When I was working for a healthcare organization we developed an extensive 10-month leadership training program. Cohorts of 12 to 18 core leaders would go through the 10 months together. One of the outcomes was to develop an environment where leaders could be their authentic selves and openly discuss leader and personal issues that really challenged them. This meant we had to have an environment of trust and total confidentiality. 

Your job is to establish ground rules for the space that everyone is held accountable to. This is some of what we did.

  • Within each cohort, we established the cone of silence. If we wanted to have open and honest dialogue, everyone in the cohort agreed not to discuss any of the confidential conversations that occurred in any of the learning events with anyone outside of the cohort. If anyone violated that agreement the cohort would be disbanded. No one ever violated the agreement because they didn’t want to be the one responsible for the violation. They saw the value of learning from each other and they had never had an opportunity like this to share work frustrations and concerns without repercussions, so they didn’t want to lose the opportunity for this space. 
  • This established the opportunity to form a community of leaders not only with their cohorts but all the cohorts who went through the 10-month learning program. 
  • This also helped the cohort to build trust and respect for each other as individuals and leaders.
  • It created an opportunity to network throughout the organization with other leaders to build a stronger core leadership together.
  • No one was allowed to bring religion, politics, or personal agendas into the learning events. If it happened, and it did from time to time, I simply threw the out-of-bounds flag and stopped the conversation. I would say, I understand why you are bringing this up, but this is not the forum that we agreed to for that discussion.
  • Emotions were allowed because part of the training included emotional intelligence training, so this was a forum where we could practice what we were learning.

The point is you need to establish some ground rules for your space. 

  • Everyone’s opinion is valued and we will respect those opinions.
  • Everyone has different experiences and we respect those individual experiences.
  • When someone is talking and we disagree with them we will not interrupt and let them finish speaking. 
  • If someone says or expresses an idea or opinion that contradicts our own belief system, we will address it immediately before it grows out of control. Remember we each see the world differently which means neither of us is right or wrong. Yes, see things differently through our personal source of truth lens

Set ground rules and make sure EVERYONE agrees to them and understands the consequences if any of the rules are broken. In other words, not punishment, but what they lose, they lose the space to be open and honest.

Emotional intelligence

The other half of the equation is everyone needs a good understanding of their emotional intelligence. Everyone has emotions, some emotions get triggered quickly and some take time. 

When you establish space for healthy dialogue people will say things, not necessarily on purpose, that will trigger an emotional response from someone else. Everyone who participates in this space needs to know what triggers their emotions. They also need to understand the triggered emotions they would experience. 

How do we deal with emotions without spending an entire day in emotional intelligence training, nothing wrong with that but if you don’t have the time right now try this.

  1. Take a deep breath and give your brain a minute or two to process what was said. That will help you to mitigate your first reaction.
  2. Know that the statement came from someone’s else perspective based on their life experiences or belief system.
  3. In most cases, what was said is not a personal attack, even though it might feel like that.
  4. Ask yourself the question, “What don’t I know?” Be open and curious about what was said. Listen to how others see or respond to situations. Listening to someone else’s viewpoint doesn’t mean we have to change or question how we see the world or what we believe in. What it does do, is widen our view of the world and provide opportunities to establish common ground, even when we don’t agree.

 I dare you 

It’s really hard to run through a minefield without stepping on something. Whenever we open the door to our peers or staff to engage in open honest dialogue we’re bound to step into something. No matter how strongly we feel we are doing the right thing our intentions will be misunderstood, and someone will get their feelings hurt and run to HR.

If you want open and honest dialogue, you start by having an open and honest conversation with your peers or staff. Tell them your intentions why you want to try it and what outcomes you are looking for. Then ask your staff their thoughts about it. Use your active listening skills, and model how you would like to see them do it. Listen to your staff’s concerns, address each comment, talk through the challenges, and come to an agreement. At the end of the meeting, you just might have had a healthy dialogue. Deliberate practice.  

Your personal leader library

If you don’t have a leadership or personal library, start one. It is easy to forget about something when it is on your computer and you turn it off. However, there is something about a hard copy book staring at you every day as a reminder of what you are learning or would like to change about yourself.

Here are a few good books to have on your library shelf:

Dare to Lead, by Brené Brown

Radical Candor, by Kim Scott

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Field Manual) by Patrick Lencioni

The Ideal Team Player by Patrick Lencioni

QBQ The Question Behind the Question by John Miller

Don’t wait for tomorrow, tomorrow never comes. What you have is today and this is the best time to begin anything.