“A real conversation always contains an invitation. You are inviting another person to reveal herself or himself to you, to tell who they are or what they want.” –David Whyte
In January 2016 I made a commitment to write and share 52 nuggets of leadership wisdom. With great support from our team, a few nuggets from guest writer Marcy Hyatt, and an extra 21 days into 2017, we met our goal. I don’t think it’s a small coincidence that nugget #52 comes at the end of a rare week in US democracy. The week started celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 88th birthday and the hope of his legacy. Then there was the inauguration of a new Presidential administration, and the week ending with women and men marching and protesting across the country – and globally – to preserve the Constitutional rights of all people – the hope for the future.
Sitting quietly reflecting on these events, I thought about the conversations I wished I could have with three beautiful people I had the honor to know before their passing. Dr. Maxine Thurston-Fischer was a woman of color, my sister-friend for 30 years. In the 1960’s she did a sit-in at the lunch counter of Burdines’ Department Store in Miami that wouldn’t allow black shoppers at the time. She earned her PhD, transformed an important nonprofit organization and challenged all of us to think further and be better. Maxine would say stand up for what you believe. Edgar Betancourt was a gay man of Columbian origin, one of my best friends for more than 30 years. In the 1980’s he migrated to the US, became an American citizen, perfected English, got a Master’s Degree, obtained a corporate leadership position and lived life to the fullest. Edgar would say this life is beautiful, do what you love. Marcy Hershey Brittain was a woman in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down in childhood as the result of a tumor on her spine. She earned two Master’s Degrees, she was married, she was a runner-up in a beauty pageant for women with disabilities and she was generous to a fault. Marcy would say buy a crazy new purse and flaunt it at the next meeting. All three of these bright stars would align with corporate leader and author Sheryl Sandberg who said “lean into your discomfort”.
For leaders – and especially nonprofit and nongovernmental organization leaders – doing what you believe in and doing what you love, comes with the challenge of daring to be different and daring to have hard conversations every day. And not everyone will agree with you or support you, but that can’t be the barrier. In the world of nonprofit leadership, challenges are opportunities for new conversations that open new doors. As organizational anthropologist and executive coach Judith Glaser says, “To get to the next level of greatness depends on the quality of the culture, which depends on the quality of the relationships, which depends on the quality of the conversations. Everything happens through conversations.”
So where to begin to change the quality of our conversations, especially with people who we don’t see eye to eye? One thing is seeking a shared understanding about what is the purpose of the conversation you are having. A good conversation is much more than an exchange of words. A quality conversation is an exchange where each person feels heard, satisfied, and maybe even more informed. It’s an interchange where there is listening closely, acknowledging each other’s concerns and perspective and a willingness to find common ground to continue the conversation. A good conversation has a purpose that each person in the conversation understands.
Here are a few initial approaches to practice in your next conversations. Check-in to agree on the purpose of the conversation and what you hope to accomplish from it. Are you there to give information, persuade another person about a particular point of view or explore ideas? A commitment to exploring always enables more expansive discussion. Experiment with letting the other person or people talk first and really listen to what’s on their minds. Try waiting 10-15 seconds before you respond with something that helps you create more of a connection. For example, be intentional about appreciating something that was said by thanking them for their perspective. Invite them to say more about something that peaked your curiosity. This is especially important when someone says something with which you may not agree. You want to stay away from judging the perspective as bad and rejecting it out of hand. Instead you want to go with the thought of learning more. The idea is to peel the onion back layer by layer to more fully understand the roots of the different perspective instead of getting stuck on a disagreement. The roots of disagreements often come from painful personal experiences, a narrow experience, confusion or misinformation. We don’t learn about these things until we ask more questions with a genuine interest in discovering. A commitment to discovery always enables more expansive conversations.
This is a period in time when productive conversations for nonprofit leaders will be more important than they have ever been. What promise will you make to shift the quality of the conversations you are having? Our commitment for 2017 is 52 more leadership wisdom nuggets filled with proven practices and new ideas to make every conversation count.
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