Being a leader sometimes means having to have difficult conversations, and often means having to have conversations that are vital to moving people, or projects forward.  To be successful in these situations requires more than saying the right things and listening to the other person. You also need to have an awareness of where you are coming from emotionally and mentally in the moment, and where the other person is.  This requires listening and watching for cues from the other person, or people, in what they are saying, and how they are saying it, then responding correctly to these cues to maintain or move the conversation to a positive tone.  That is conversational agility.

In negotiation, there are five essential conversational skills:

1. listening to connect
2. asking questions which you do not have the answer to
3. priming for trust
4. double-clicking 
5. and sustaining conversational agility

According to executive coach and management consultant Judith E. Glaser, conversational agility is composed of three techniques: reframing, refocusing, and redirecting. Most good leaders will carry out these techniques in regular conversations without being aware that they are doing it, but to apply them to the best of your ability, they need to be practised and developed – so let’s break down what they mean, and how they help good leaders be great.

Reframing is about changing the context in order to give new meaning to a situation, turning it into a chance for the person to find some common ground with you, and hopefully an opportunity to build trust with you.  It’s about asking, ‘is there a more positive way we can look at this situation?’.  So if someone is feeling negative about their place in a project, or disappointed in themselves over a mistake they made, you could reframe this to tell them about mistakes that you have made at work in the past, and how you learned from them and grew from that knowledge.

Refocusing is a great way to encourage someone in your team to move forward.  It is about acknowledging something that they are good at, and getting them to apply it to a different area.  For instance, if someone is taking too much time on a single area of a project, you could let them know that you are impressed by their commitment, or attention to detail, or perfectionism, but that other areas of the project would equally benefit from this skill.  Refocusing turns what could be seen as a negative attribute, and turns it into a positive asset.  

Redirecting is similar, but with a more emotional focus.  When someone is stressed or upset, by redirecting the topic of the conversation, even if just for a moment, it can give the person a chance to relax, and take a step away from the situation.

Like any leadership skill, mastering conversational agility takes dedication and practice.  Instead of trying to tackle this all at once, focus on one of the three techniques at a time and practice it in your next meetings or one-to-ones.  Soon these advanced listening and responding methods will become a natural and instinctive part of your leadership style.

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