Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Essential conversation skills for leaders

A leader's day is filled with conversations. Success comes from how effective leaders are during those talks. "You can define leadership as a series of conversations every day," said Richard Wellins, Pittsburgh-based senior vice-president of Development Dimensions International Inc., a human resources consulting firm.

Judged by those conversations, many leaders are failing. A survey by Mr. Wellins' firm found that top managers lack the basic skills to conduct conversations. Sixty per cent of respondents to the global study said their manager sometimes damaged their self-esteem in conversation, while a third said their manager did not remain calm and constructive when discussing a problem.

Only half of respondents (51 per cent) said their leader most of the time or always asked for their ideas about how to solve problems. About six out of 10 (59 per cent) said their manager asked questions to ensure he or she understood what the subordinate was saying.

Story continues below advertisement

Many things happen in any conversation. But Mr. Wellins' firm focuses on two: dealing with practical needs, to reach a productive outcome; and recognizing personal needs, so that people feel valued, understood, involved, and supported.

On the practical side, you must open the conversation by ensuring that everyone understands the purpose. The leader must be able to clarify issues that arise, helping to build a picture of the situation, using facts. Next comes developing ideas that emerge, through questions and by including others in the process.

The final two stages involve attaining agreement and checking that everyone is clear about what has been affirmed and the next steps. "I'm sure you have been to meetings and you have no idea why you are there. That's a failure of practical skills," Mr. Wellins said.

On the personal side, leaders must ensure that they maintain or enhance self-esteem by being specific about what people do and why their contributions matter. They should listen and respond with empathy. They should ask for help and encourage involvement, using questions to unleash everyone's ideas. Next, leaders must share thoughts, feelings and rationale to build trust and provide context and, finally, they must provide support without removing responsibility and accountability from others.

Mr. Wellins believes you have to practise the practical and personal skills of communication to be effective leaders. You also need to steer clear of seven interaction sins:

1. Going straight to the problem

Busy executives want to solve problems. Fast. So they jump straight to presenting the solution, missing opportunities to involve others in the process. "It's a sin," he said. "Good answers come from others. The more I lead, the more I realize I need the help of others."

Story continues below advertisement

2. Figuring one size fits all

Over time, leaders develop a preferred style and approach to meetings and interactions. They can become oblivious to the fact that their favoured approach doesn't work with some people – it may even backfire. "Each person is an individual. You can't use the same skills with each person," he said.

3. Avoiding tough issues

This is another big problem, as leaders avoid confronting sensitive issues, notably during performance reviews. It often results from an inability to defuse situations and tackle prickly matters. If shirkers, bullies or other office menaces aren't confronted , "it destroys the leader's credibility," he said.

4. Applying skills inconsistently

While one size does not fit all, leaders must be sensitive to times when skills they have used effectively in one situation do, in fact, apply to another. For example, they may be empathetic with their peers, but not subordinates.

Story continues below advertisement

5. Influencing through facts only

Leaders often rely solely on logic to present an argument, forgetting that our brains have two sides, emotional and analytical. Mr. Wellins said such leaders try a Mr. Spock approach, even when spouting out cold facts is not effective.

6. Forgetting to engage others

Leaders can be quick to recognize the need for improving products or processes. But they fail to engage others in the process, dooming the effort. "A lot of leaders are oblivious to the impact the change may have on a person and that person's career," he said.

7. Neglecting to coach in the moment

Too many leaders are committed to formal teaching occasions (such as courses and performance reviews) rather than taking the opportunity to coach in the moment, taking advantage of a teachable moment that arises during the course of a day.

The overall message? Many leaders are not very skilled at having successful conversations, even though their days are laced with important ones.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to