It’s All About Communication

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CHROs can help transform their organizations by focusing on the ways people at all levels of the company talk, listen and interact.

HR leaders can help others within their organization recognize unproductive “auto-pilot” communication patterns, shift their thinking and transform difficult conversations into more productive dialogue.

So says Chuck Wisner, leadership coach and author of The Art of Conscious Conversations: Transforming How We Talk, Listen, and Interact. Wisner spoke with StrategicCHRO360 about how CHROs can lead on this issue.

In the book you talk about why we need to approach conversations more consciously. How can HR leaders encourage more conscious conversations among workers?

Every society indoctrinates its members to believe and behave in specific ways. The lessons we learn at home, at school and in public infuse us with specific points of view, prejudices and opinions. Without conscious effort, those biases become deeply rooted in our minds, establishing the patterns of thought that determine our behavior. Our familiar patterns are comforting and often the reason we react and respond on autopilot. It takes effort to disrupt our running patterns and alter them.

HR leaders can help others recognize unproductive auto-pilot patterns, shift their thinking and transform a difficult conversation. When HR leaders engage in conversations more consciously with inquiry and empathy, they can model a less judgmental approach which will reduce stress, open minds and resolve conflict. The results are worth the effort. 

You talk about four questions that can guide us toward having more conscious conversations—and help us realize what might be getting in the way or what we subconsciously bring to conversations. Can you summarize them and explain how they impact our conversations—and why it’s essential to use these when approaching conversations with employees, colleagues or your boss?

Question #1: “What are your desires?”

Desires can serve us or harm us. Unspoken or unconscious, our desires can be the root of our dissatisfactions and disappointments. Goals and targets can guide us into the future. But desires misaligned with reality are harmful, “This shouldn’t be happening, or I want to be just like her!”

Through inquiry HR leaders can help others surface their unexplored desires. Awareness of one’s desires can shift our story about what is or is not happening, creating an opportunity to shift our thinking and our conversations. 

Question #2: “What are your power issues?” 

Authority is at the center of every conversation because hierarchical power dynamics exist in our families and workplaces. Power issues can send us into defensive and aggressive reactions without conscious effort. At one end of the spectrum, we can feel powerless and comparatively inferior to others. At the other end of the spectrum, we can egotistically feel all-powerful and dismiss or abuse others unwisely.

HR leaders more attuned to pervasive authority issues can help others investigate and better understand power issues and productively shift their reactions, interactions and relationships.

Question #3: “What are your concerns?” 

Concerns are the sister of desires, and they reflect our worries about tomorrow. They can wake us to problems and prod us into action, or they can spin us into fears and cycles of despair about what might happen tomorrow. Legitimate concerns are deeply personal as they reveal our innermost thoughts, yet they often remain unspoken in challenging conversations. 

HR leaders can support others by inquiring into their concerns to help them understand which circumstances are serving them vs. those stressing them out.

Question #4: “What are your standards?” 

Our standards reflect the beliefs and values that we adopted through our upbringing and play an outsized role in our auto-pilot reactions. They are the lens with which we view ourselves and others. Our stories about right and wrong, good and evil, valuable and useless live in the background of our consciousness and are often the root of conflict. 

HR leaders can help others become aware of and investigate their standards to assess and challenge them. Surfacing standards in a conversation with the intent of creating mutual understanding and learning is often a good way to untangle misunderstandings and conflict. 

How can mastering conscious conversations lead us to maximize collaboration—and why is this important for HR leaders?

Conscious conversations start with an inward journey. As we become aware of our unconscious patterns, we expand our thinking and become open to other ways of thinking. We can choose to re-evaluate our desires or standards and open our minds to different perspectives and possibilities. With increased self-awareness, we appreciate how, like us, others can also be trapped in uninvestigated thinking patterns.

As a talent leader, you can support others to see how thinking patterns play out for themselves and others and recognize different perspectives.  Collaborative conversations activate mutual understanding where we get smarter together, possibilities emerge and make smart commitments.

You write about the importance of leaders adopting a culture of emotional safety over hierarchies. How does this impact HR leaders and why is it important when it comes to “culture?”

The voice from the top carries a lot of weight. A leader is usually unaware of how their position can cultivate cultures of fear that stifle collaboration and innovation.

HR leaders can help diminish power struggles inherent within hierarchies by helping leaders across the organization to lead with humility and encourage others to share their thoughts and challenge their thinking. Inevitably, a safe-to-speak culture generates cultures of enthusiastic engagement, fresh ideas and better decisions.

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