As a leader, you spend 80% of your time in conversation. Your employees spend, on average, 37% of their time in meetings.
This presents an often under-utilised opportunity for those conversations to be impactful, to direct focus and attention, and to create forward movement in your business.
However, we often find ourselves on the conversation treadmill — that series of conversations where you suddenly find yourself in the same conversation that you were having last week, or yesterday, or even earlier today. Or sometimes it’s the conversation where you are trying to resolve an issue or solve a problem and the conversation goes around and around with seemingly no end.
We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them.
Or the frustration of resorting to telling everybody what they need to do — which just means that you are doing all the thinking that they are paid to do.
We need to find a circuit breaker. As Einstein said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them”.
It turns out that in many cases, the reason this happens is that we are simply thinking too hard.
The most common and obvious way we try to solve problems is to use our conscious ‘intelligent’ brain — the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) — often referred to as our ‘Executive Brain’.
Of course, as we are intelligent beings, this makes sense when we are under the pump and needing a breakthrough, but there is a catch: the PFC is a linear processor. It processes like a Grade 3 maths problem, i.e. A + B + C = D. But if C is missing, the brain will go around in circles until it can find that missing piece. It does not have the processing power to easily make non-obvious and previously untested ideas connect and make sense.
On the other hand, our non-conscious brain is a non-linear processor and has far greater capacity to connect previously unrelated concepts to form a new one. In simplistic terms, this is the process of insight, and at the moment of insight, the chemicals produced in our brain make us feel great, and motivated to take action.
Take a moment, then, to consider when you are most likely to have an ‘aha!’ moment — walking the dog, in the shower, at 3 am in the morning. Interestingly, they often only occur when you are NOT trying to solve the problem.
Research conducted by US-based Dr Judith Glaser, author of ‘Conversational Intelligence’, suggests that up to 95% of our workplace interactions are instruction or of a telling nature — and we don’t like being told what to do.
So to get off the treadmill and onto the elevator, we need to stop telling and instead ask questions that will create insight. And that’s a skill that can, and should, be learned by all leaders.
Your credibility and effectiveness as a leader will come from the questions you ask, not from the advice you give.
Here are 3 quick tips on how to hold an insightful conversation:
Never react or respond immediately
When something is said that is not what you expected, or wanted to hear, then pause and find out more. My advice is to get the habit of saying ‘That’s interesting — tell me more’. Let them do the thinking.
Curious questions are ones that you don’t know the answer to, and neither do they. If you are asking questions that cause them to pause and reflect before they answer, you are definitely on the first few steps of the elevator and heading up. And they can be simple questions like: “How long has this been an issue for you?” or “Do you know what to do next?” or “Who else could help you with this?”
Asking just 3 or 4 of these kinds of questions can elicit valuable information and in some cases, set them thinking in a whole new direction.
Don’t expect to solve the issue there and then
The non-conscious brain needs time to make the new connections that will resolve the issue, so set them on a new path of thinking then suggest they come see you later or tomorrow.
Change happens one conversation at a time, not in one conversation, so be patient and focus on the progress and evolution of their thinking, not the outcome.