Conversation: The Leader’s Secret Weapon of Influence

by Andy Wood on December 1, 2010

in Enlarging Your Capacity, Executing Your Plan, Leadership, Life Currency, LV Cycle, Words

Make a list of the most important qualities needed for effective leadership, and let me hazard a guess as to what won’t be on it:  Conversation. 

Oh, I’m sure you’ll mention communication, but in most people’s imagination, this refers to the ability to move a crowd with speeches, lead a meeting with clarity, and/or write powerfully.  And let me hasten to say, I’m for all three of those.

In each of these, a position holder is talking to people in other positions.  And that has its place.  But the best leaders have a secret weapon that “primes the pump” of their influence:  they know how to engage their constituents in ongoing, life-shaping, direction-setting conversations. 

They disarm by listening differently. 

They empower by asking questions out of sincere curiosity. 

They enflame the imagination by telling stories – theirs or somebody else’s. 

They forge “joint ventures of the heart” by demonstrating understanding and an ability to be influenced themselves. 

And they mobilize by sharing their vision interpersonally, with passion.

And all of this can be done in a few minutes at a time, standing at the water cooler, waiting for the “real” meeting to start, or riding on a bus to the company picnic.

A Tale of Jekyll-and-Hyde Proportions

Many years ago I got a job that literally started with a conversation.  I dropped by to make a brief sales contact, and wound up staying for 45 minutes.  The conversation with the organization’s chief operating officer was engaging.  Fascinating.  Mutually stimulating.

And somewhere along the way it turned into an interview without my even knowing it.

The conversation ended that day with, “We’ll talk later.”  I couldn’t wait!

A week later, we got together and talked some more, and I was offered an opportunity to work for this respected organization, creating a new middle management department.

And the conversation with the COO just kept going.  We met regularly, both formally and informally.  He told me his story.  The organization’s story.  Funny folklore reserved for people who were cultural insiders.  And all this developed quickly.

Meanwhile, in the organization’s real world, I collided every day with a culture that “led” through fear, manipulation, and “need to know” communication.  “Conversations” with leaders took the form of announcements, confrontations, and one-sided reports of  “this is how it’s going to be.”  This led to grapevine gossip and something of a prisoner of war mentality among the employees at large.  It was a bizarre, dysfunctional system.  But I suspect that’s more the rule than the exception.

Listening Differently

All the best sources on communication and leadership will affirm the need to be a good listener.  To pay attention to what the other person is saying without jumping ahead to plan your response.  To listen with sympathy and support.

Ginger Cockerham takes that one step further.  She distinguishes between “listening to” and “listening for.” 

A leader who is a master communicator learns to listen “for” specific things rather than passively listening “to” a person. Listening “for” involves not only hearing what is said, but also listening for what is not being said, listening for what is missing, listening for the truth. This allows a leader to inquire with insightful questions and elicit honest and informative responses.

The best leaders I know are adept at hearing what someone is saying, but listening even closer for the truth between the words.  It is there that they find shifts in the organization’s culture, opportunities for new influential action, or problems with the implementation of their plans to reach goals.

This level of communication can only take place in an environment of trust as leaders are regularly…

Empowering Others by Asking Questions

One of my favorite things to do with someone I’m getting to know is to simply ask across the table at lunch or coffee, “Tell me your story.”  The response usually takes the form of a question.

“What do you want to know?”

“Whatever you want to tell me.”

No agenda.  Just sincere curiosity, and respect for whatever the answer is.  Then more curiosity.

Leaders who use the Secret Weapon have a fundamental belief that people are fascinating – even if they have known them for years.

You can learn things from fascinating people.  And if everybody is fascinating (and they are), the wealth of understanding available to you is only limited by your refusal to ask for it.

But when you do ask, then respond respectfully, with ongoing curiosity and fascination, an amazing transformation takes place among your constituents – they want to hear your story, wherever it takes them.

Enflaming Imagination by Telling Stories

A little after 5:00 last night, my wife called and said her 5:30 appointment had cancelled.  She had two other appointments that evening, so she said she would come home and rest for a little while before going back to her office.

She never made it home.

Now… watch the thoughts firing off in your head.  Each of the possibilities of why she didn’t make it are elements of a story.  And that’s how God created our minds to work.

It’s also why Jesus taught in stories, commonly known as parables.  But Jesus used stories in general conversations, too.  After he had sent out the seventy and they returned, rejoicing that the demons were subject to his name, He told them a story about seeing Satan fall like lightning from heaven.  He repeatedly told them the predictive story of how He would be crucified and rise from the dead.  Many of these were on-the-fly, unplanned opportunities to use metaphors or stories to communicate his vision of the Kingdom of God. Even His first recorded words had the elements of a story about it as He mentioned being about His Father’s business.

Still wondering about my wife?  So was I.  So I called. She had rearranged another appointment.  Not as adventuresome or scary an ending, but now you know… the rrrrest of the story.

Leaders tell the stories of what could be, or of others who are doing things well.  Sometimes they tell stories on themselves, of lessons learned the hard way or of graces discovered in wonderful ways.  And as Stephen Denning reminds us, the best leaders will tell you stories that leave room for you to be the main character in a story of your own making. 

Joint Ventures of the Heart

Leaders who talk “at” others, even when using conversation or storytelling, already have all the details worked out – sort of like a play where the lines and roles are already scripted.  Your job is simply to learn your lines and enter and exit on cue.

Whatever else that is, it isn’t a conversation, and it isn’t influence.

Have you ever had a leader who knew where he/she wanted to go, but allowed you to help make the map to get there?  And who actually gave you the credit for shaping that part of the idea? Ara Norwood  says that the best conversational leaders don’t pretend to have all the answers, and value the perspectives of constituents.  They demonstrate a true spirit of inquiry and interest in their conversations, encouraging constituents to continue whenever their thoughts seem to taper off.  And they summarize and give credit for any contributions to the conversation offered by others.

In allowing for joint ventures of the heart, leaders encourage buy-in because constituents can see their own ideas at work when the leader mobilizes them by…

Sharing Vision with Passion

If the only time you communicate your vision is in a company-wide speech, mission statement, or an annual report, your vision will lack credibility.  But when in unrehearsed casual conversations and every-day connections you are passionate about the compelling future you imagine, people will voluntarily make your vision their own.  That’s especially true when they feel that you have heard them, shared stories with them, and let them help shape your future story.

Conversations are something my two-year-old granddaughter can already do very well. Yet she (and I and you) will spend a lifetime perfecting the art.  Don’t allow the formal role of leader, if you have one, to force a barrier between you and the conversations that need to continue if you are to succeed.  Your constituents will be more greatly influenced – one way or another – by your chats in the hallway than your speeches on the platform.

That reminds me of a story…

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Ivy December 1, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Great stuff, Andy. Thanks for this post. It’s a good reminder for us all.

Karen Smith-Will December 1, 2010 at 9:57 pm

And you know, Andy, it’s not just your constituents who will be influenced “by the chats in the hallway.” It might also be the random person on the playground while your pushing your daughter on the swing, or the one in the airplane on the way home, or the local broadcaster you run into in the produce department, or the fellow-parent on the field trip…you get the picture.

It’s surprising how many of those people are just waiting to tell their big story. And you might really need to hear it.
Karen Smith-Will´s last blog post ..Ashton Will honored at event for gifted children

Andy Wood December 1, 2010 at 11:45 pm

Karen, you’re absolutely right, and that suggests two things. First, leadership, as we know, is not limited to formal positions of authority. Second, the principles regarding being an effective conversationalist aren’t limited to leadership situations alone. Thanks for your thoughts.

Dusti Dillon-Stoner December 6, 2010 at 4:03 pm

Wow that feels wierd, calling you as Andy. What a refreshing thing to read. I really enjoyed reading the section in regards to listening for and not to a person. As I know personally you are an excellent conversationalist and listener. I look forward to more knowlege that you will be sharing with us.

Valerie D Peters September 21, 2017 at 7:50 am

Thank-you for this Prof.
I get a lot from these “memos”, they make sense and I do wish their emphasis was more elevated.
“Leaders who talk “at” others, even when using conversation or storytelling, already have all the details worked out – sort of like a play where the lines and roles are already scripted. Your job is simply to learn your lines and enter and exit on cue.”
This is so commonplace it is as though the cattle are herded in then herded out, none the wiser as a sluggish pack emerges. I’ve sat through my share of being flapped “at”.
Again, thank-you!

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