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Mind the Gap: Facilitating Difficult Dialogue

Teams are defined by the quality of the difficult conversations that they have. Many teams avoid difficult dialogue and are thus defined by the conversations that they don't have. Other teams lean into controversial topics, but do so without care, creating a hostile environment where co-operation is defined by fear and judgment.

The most effective teams approach difficult conversations directly and skillfully. With regular attention to resolving issues, they create an environment in which the entire group is learning and growing together and ideas flow quickly throughout the system.

This is a foundational job of leadership: to nurture the free flow of ideas, particularly sensitive ones, thereby increasing the intelligence and effectiveness of the entire team.

Mind the Gap, Grow the Pool

When difficult dialogue is avoided or handled poorly, a gap forms. A gap is a barrier between the perspective of an individual team member and the wisdom of the collective team.

For individual team members, gaps mean frustration, resentment, and apathy (and if they feel they have other options, eventually quitting the team).

For team performance, gaps mean inefficiencies. Shared team meaning is the collective reservoir of intelligence from which successful teams draw their intelligence, motivation, and productivity. Gaps make teams less productive by shrinking this collective pool of meaning.

What do small pools look like in practice? Rather than address problematic behavior of a team member, we'll create a convoluted process to work around them; rather than share information transparently, we'll spend days on messaging to tell a "better" story; rather than make decisions as a group, I'll figure out what's best on my own; rather than defend my colleague, I'll throw them under the bus.

Most gaps are borne from good intent: we don't want to hurt feelings, we don't want to reveal weaknesses, we don't want to rock the boat. But the impact is the same: misalignment, disengagement, and lost productivity. Remember: any negative fall-out from having a difficult conversation is better for the team than not having a conversation at all.

Many people choose the "bad" to avoid the "okay"

Bridge the Gap

When we engage skillfully in difficult dialogue, we bridge the gap, creating the basis for collective understanding, synergy, and genuine commitment. Bridging gaps is not easy, but it is easier than the alternative of failed teamwork.

Here are 6 quick tips to transform difficult dialogue into a habit:

  1. Tee them up regularly. Difficult conversations are not a one-time occurrence. They are a habit, a way of relating to discomfort. Soon after one conversation ends, you will feel a gap beginning to form again. As a rule of thumb, create the conditions for difficult dialogue to occur within your team (see next section) at least monthly.

  2. Establish shared purpose. Shared purpose is the foundation of safety and honesty in dialogue. Our default purpose in conversation is to "be right" or get what we want. In dialogue, there is no right and wrong, and your purpose should reflect that with words like "grow", "improve", "understand", etc. When in doubt, fall back on the universal purpose of expanding your teams Pool of Meaning.

  3. Express (and own) your emotions. Holding difficult dialogue without invoking emotions is like trying to jump without bending your knees (possible but hard!). In difficult dialogue, vulnerability is a strength, as it helps others connect with your experience. An important corollary: own your emotions. As soon as you point the finger at others as the cause of your emotions, they will get defensive and possibly feel manipulated.

  4. Be honest. Your personal experience and interpretations belong in the shared pool of meaning. If you're parroting what others have said or what you think they want to hear, you're not expanding the pool.

  5. Listen to everyone with respect: Everyone gets discrete speaking opportunities (as the definition of "team" grows, the form of involvement can transform to breakout groups, nominated speakers, and pre-meeting surveys.) While others are speaking, listen intently to what they say.

  6. Remove fear. Fear is the ultimate gap-creator. Fear manifests as either fighting (aggression) or fleeing (silence), and both reactions stop information from flowing freely. When you see the signs of fear, pause and address them. Move back to establishing shared purpose and respect.

Creating the Conditions

Kicking off difficult dialogue is straightforward: (1) propose a purpose and topic, explaining why you feel they're important; (2) model good dialogue behavior to set the tone; (3) go around the group.

Good purposes include: achieving greatness together, unlocking team growth, resolving miscommunications, improving team relationships, etc.

Good topics are questions, and some examples include: "what are we not talking about that we need to?", "how are we holding ourselves back?", "whats keeping each of us from doing our best work?", "what's getting in the way of our growth?", etc.

Good dialogue behavior includes: honesty, vulnerability, respect, accountability, and, finally, curiosity and listening.

If you're interested in unlocking the magic of difficult dialogue across your organization, reach out to to learn more about team facilitation.


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