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What if conversations were action?

4 min read


Josh is a seasoned leader who identifies with being introverted. As such, he prefers to stay in his office, head down, only looking up to answer the phone or to acknowledge someone who is at his door. He’s a hard worker, he’s smart, and he gets lots of things done. He’s noticed that his team seems scattered, losing their sense of direction often. Josh knows something is missing in his leadership; he just can’t put his finger on it.

Marie is a C-suite executive who climbed to where she is by being driven to take action and get results. She’s fast-paced with high expectations for herself and others. She keeps on top of things by working long hours and sending messages to her staff on evenings and weekends to remind them of their deadlines and to redirect them (often) when she thinks they aren’t doing things correctly. She feels like she’s starting to wear out at the ripe old age of 42. She knows she has to make some changes in her leadership and her life but can’t quite figure out where to begin.

Leaders may avoid having conversations, seeing them as sucking up valuable time that can be spent “taking action.” That was the case for both of these leaders.

Yet they each have come to a crossroads. They can keep doing what they’ve always been doing or they can try something that just might boost their ability to lead others to a new level.

Could it be that “something missing” might be the very thing they’ve avoided because they don’t see it as “taking action”? What if that thing, called “having conversations,” were actually an action? Without two-way conversations:

  • Resulting activities by their teams can veer off course because expectations aren’t clearly discussed and understood;
  • Team members may be seen as incapable or misunderstood when they haven’t been fully listened to;
  • A leader can be viewed as unapproachable, preventing them from hearing information that is important to their ability to lead well;
  • Casual conversation is absent making the bonds between the leader and their team tentative.

As you move up the corporate ladder, conversations with others become ever more vital to your success and ability to thrive as a leader. Leadership is all about influencing and motivating people to take action, and that won’t happen without your willingness to spend a significant part of your day in conversation.

The kind of conversations you need to have consist of two obvious parts that may require different approaches than you’ve used before:

Talking should be kept to a minimum. What if you let go of the need to direct a conversation and spill out everything that’s on your mind? A conversation needs to be two-way, but particularly when you are leading your own team, I’d suggest that you shoot for talking 30% of the time or less. The words that you speak should be stated with care, brevity, and clarity. A significant portion of those words should be open-ended questions such as “What do you think?” or “What are your next steps?” Finally, remember the power of silence and don’t feel a need to fill it. Trust that if you don’t talk someone will; your silence will encourage real conversation.

Listening more than you might be comfortable with now. If you’re talking 30% of the time, then you’ll be listening 70%. The kind of listening you should be exhibiting is the kind that is without external distractions (checking your cell phone, reading something on your desk, etc.) and devoid of internal distractions (otherwise known as brain chatter). If you notice your mind wandering, just go back to listening. The great thing about listening is that is creates emotional connections with others and fosters empathy and trust. At the same time, listening can be a selfish activity, providing you with valuable information needed to help you to lead.

Conversations are action, and they are necessary for subsequent actions to be focused appropriately as well as to foster healthy relationships. What conversations do you need to start with today?

Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 12 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive-coaching firm that manages Fortune 500 corporate-coaching initiatives and coaches leaders to prepare them for bigger and better things.

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