Nine Rules for Leading a Constructive Conversation

May 8, 2017

Smart leaders in 2017 don’t design good conversations, they orchestrate them.

What do I mean by that? For me, Design is a creative process that begins with the end in mind and identifies the resources needed, and the activities/experiences required, to produce those outcomes. Design is an intentional, outcomes-driven process. It is a powerful way to take charge of your future.

But when you are leading a conversation you don’t have full control of all the resources the participants bring to the exchange. And you can’t put boundaries around the flow of the conversation either; conversation is, by definition, a collaborative activity that involves two or more people who bring different experiences, values, styles, and goals to the experience, and who co-create the outcomes.

As an organizational leader, you can – and should – design the context for your conversations; but if you attempt to control the conversation itself you will most likely constrain the exchange of ideas, and you will probably kill the spontaneity and the energy that characterize all constructive conversations.

That is why I like to think of conversational leadership as being more like conducting an orchestra than designing a new product or directing a movie. An orchestra conductor leverages the talents of all the musicians but leaves playing the music to the individual musicians. He or she sets the pace of the musical performance

As I have suggested elsewhere (see Making Meetings Matter, my latest book), the most significant thing a leader can do is to approach every conversation – whether with peers, with subordinates, or with bosses – with a collaborative mindset.

For me that includes nine basic leadership “rules” for orchestrating powerful conversations:

  1. Assume that the group is far more intelligent and experienced than any single participant. Remember, no one is smarter than everyone. And that includes you!
  2. Presume that people can learn and grow. And that includes you, too. Be open to learning from anyone about anything.
  3. Focus on broad goals everyone agrees with. Start the conversation with common goals and seek win/win solutions whenever possible.
  4. Respect (and leverage) individual differences. Remember that there is only one of you, and there is only one of everybody else in the world. And it’s not only individual experiences and knowledge; just as important are the different talents and different ways of processing information and responding to other people that each person brings to the conversation.
  5. Suspend judgment. Hear people out and be sure you understand their ideas in sufficient depth before you decide (and certainly before you communicate) whether those ideas are useful and relevant, or a distraction.
  6. Enter every conversation with an open and curious mind. You just never know what experiences and relevant knowledge the other participant(s) might bring to the conversation.
  7. Look for common ground. Find areas of agreement, or at least where the participants’ interests and insights overlap. Once you’ve established common goals it will be much easier (and less stressful) to explore areas of disagreement.
  8. Be authentic. Admit it when you don’t know an answer, or need help. Express the emotions you are experiencing; for example, if someone comes up with an exciting and innovative idea, thank them or praise them (but only if you genuinely mean it).
  9. Reinforce constructive behaviors from others. When someone else offers thanks, or praise, thank them in turn. Reward behaviors that help move the conversation forward, and over time you will see more of them.

Questions, questionsRealistically, it can be difficult to remember all of those “rules” in the middle of a conversation, and trying to do so will probably make you a wooden, mechanistic participant. Instead, just do what I encourage my clients to do:  approach every conversation with curiosity, humility, and an open mind.

If you can focus on just those three basic foundations of effective leadership, your conversations will feel like a magnificent symphony performance – although I believe a lively jam session is an even better metaphor.

What makes a conversation both meaningful and memorable for you?


Don’t face the future alone. Jim Ware designs collaborative conversations that enable organizational leaders to make sense out of the future.

Contact Jim today, or call him right now at +1 510.558.1434 to learn how his workshops, keynote presentations, and expertise in orchestrating powerful conversations can put the future to work for you.

Download "Nine Rules for Leading a Constructive Conversation" as a PDF

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