Five Ways to Create a Culture of Healthy Discussion

How fostering healthy discussion can help your organization succeed.

Telling the full story is the fastest way to make your organization smarter.

Want to know the secret to organizational success? It’s talk: full communication that allows everyone to know what’s really going on with all aspects of important issues.

It sounds simple, and it is. In fact, if you want to establish and maintain a culture of full and honest communication, here are the five essential things you need to know:

1. Tell the full story – with more than words

We rightly value smart thinking in business. And there is much more to our knowing than just what happens in our cerebral cortex.

Full communication includes not just our thoughts and ideas. It also includes understanding our emotions, physical sensations and intuition. This “soft” information makes for valuable additional data points for any discussion.

How many times have you looked at a proposal that makes good sense on paper, but had an uneasy feeling that warned you off it? Being aware of our feelings, body sensations and hunches allows us to access our full range of human intelligence to make fully informed decisions. Learning to routinely disclose all aspects of our experience to our colleagues ensures that no one is left guessing about what isn’t being said.

2. Separate Fact From Story

Learn the difference between the facts around an issue (what a video camera would record) and your stories (your reactions, assumptions, explanations and rationalizations). Most miscommunication starts with confusing the facts with the stories. Both are valuable. In fact, both are essential for candid communication. It’s just important that we are clear about what’s real and what we made up (even if it feels real). (Here’s a great video on the issue.)

Much of the argument and misunderstanding in organizations is around stories put forth as fact.

3. Stop trying to control people’s reactions to what you say

Most of us spend a lot of effort finding “just the right time” to have a difficult conversation in “just the right way.” It’s essential to ask – is now a good time to talk and if not now, when? But don’t back away from the discussion because someone might not like what you have to say.

Often we just plain hide the harsh truth because we are afraid of the consequences. At best this creates distrust and disconnection as information stops flowing in the organization. At worst, well, just ask Volkswagen about the costs of secrets.

Revealing beats concealing every time.

4. Speak in a way that people can hear you

This means learning to be in touch with your own speaking style and understanding that not everyone will comprehend your message. If you want someone to fully hear your message, learn their preferred communication style and where they are on the issue and then calibrate your message accordingly. Confronted with brutal honesty, some people will just block it out. Others require a blunt message to pierce their defenses and get their attention. We are all responsible for making sure our message is really heard.

5. Take healthy responsibility for problems

As soon as things get sticky in an organization, we reflexively look for who is to blame. Problem is, that’s a recipe for inaction and argument and wasting time. So instead of looking for someone to blame, ask what your responsibility is, even if you think you have nothing to do with the issue.

If you’re concerned about the issue, chances are there is some way you could have influenced the outcome. Focus on that and you immediately move into action. More importantly, you invite others to do the same, creating an upward spiral of honest self-assessment and action.

Want to Learn More?

Want to learn more about creating a culture of open discussion? Join me at a live leadership workshops coming up in New York and Boulder. Click here for details.

PHOTO: US Navy via Wikimedia

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