If You Really Want an Open Dialog, Then Act Like It

It isn’t about pushing your ideas on others, it’s about drawing theirs out.

There are times when you, as a leader, will need to have an open dialog with an individual, group or team. This might be so that you can get others’ input, thoughts or opinions. It isn’t about pushing your ideas on others, it’s about drawing theirs out. These kinds of dialogues are grounded in trust and safety and a slower pace so others can speak what they think and feel.

Leaders often have a difficult time with these kinds of conversations because they require a different set of beliefs and skills than the everyday, fast-paced, “make a decision” discussions that happen most frequently in organizations. A dialog tends to take on a life of its own, and the out-of-control nature of such a conversation can feel uncomfortable for those leading it.

Great open conversations can be filled with light bulb moments, creativity and new ideas leaping out at a pace that can be breathtaking and useful for an organization. Having an open dialog will require you to:

Be present and listen in a much deeper way than you’ve been used to. You will do less talking than usual. When you speak, you should be intentional about not ruining the trust that is needed for people to feel safe in saying what they need to say. Remain calm and willing to hear new thoughts and ideas.

Have no hidden agenda that can skew the ideas that come forward. This dialog is for you to foster the creativity in the room and avoid shutting people down or leading the conversation in a direction that will serve you rather than gaining insight from those invited into the conversation.

Be non-judgmental about what you hear. Judging the ideas that come forward is a sure way to stop the free flow of conversation. Be encouraging and upbeat about what you hear without critiquing unusual ideas; you can do that later. Just listen.

Don’t be defensive about things that are said. It’s very possible that in this “safe space” you’ve created, you might hear criticism of some things that you feel you need to defend. Be aware of your emotional reaction and avoid being outwardly defensive to assure the openness continues.

Be curious as you listen. You might find that other questions arise that you can ask to deepen or continue the conversation as it unfolds. Curiosity may also help to override any judgements or defensiveness you may be feeling.

Guide the process lightly. Begin with an open question (What is our next step? What do we value as a team? What are we doing well? What can we improve upon?). Continue to ask questions to spark thinking. Slow your pace and allow silence for others to think so they respond with their best thoughts.

If you want to have open conversations that will encourage creativity you’ll need to show up differently than you might otherwise. Your presence and ability to hold a safe space for dialog can encourage others to express new ideas.

Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a former corporate executive who has spent the past 16 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services LLC.