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  • Writer's pictureUlrika Gustafson PCC LL.M

Intentional Leadership: The Key to Impactful Conversations



Through my own C-suite experience and from partnership with HAMILTON THERRELLs advisory clients, I have discovered that the main distinction between effective and truly transformative leaders often boils down to the intentionality behind their decisions and actions.


Being intentional means consistently pausing to consider the ultimate goal of any interaction, especially when it comes to difficult conversations. This approach is not about controlling every outcome but about consciously navigating the process to ensure it aligns with your leadership goals and values.

"Effective teamwork begins and ends with communication." - Mike Krzyzewski

For seasoned senior leaders and executives, particularly those engaged in challenging dialogues with other experienced leaders, the stakes are high. These conversations are not just about resolving immediate issues but also about reinforcing leadership presence, building trust, and driving the team or organization towards its broader objectives. In this Leadership Insights post, we'll explore how to have difficult conversations with an intentional and transformational strategy.


Setting the Stage for Successful Conversations


The groundwork for any difficult conversation lies in creating an environment where all participants feel safe to express themselves openly, without fear of judgment or reprisal. This is crucial for fostering a culture of honesty and mutual respect. For instance, consider a scenario where a senior leader needs to address a performance issue with a high-performing but occasionally abrasive team member. Choosing a private, neutral setting for this conversation can help both parties feel more at ease, facilitating a more constructive exchange.


Key Objectives for Leadership Conversations

Every challenging discussion should aim to achieve three fundamental goals:

  1. Ensure actions and decisions are in line with personal and professional integrity.

  2. Maintain respect for all participants, regardless of the conversation's content.

  3. Work collaboratively towards a resolution or progress that benefits all involved.

By keeping these objectives in mind, leaders can navigate difficult conversations more effectively, turning potential conflicts into opportunities for growth and learning.

In the following sections, we will dive into practical strategies and real-world examples that illustrate how seasoned leaders can apply these principles to enhance their leadership impact, especially in the context of difficult conversations.


Practical Tips for Navigating Difficult Conversations


In the following section, we'll explore practical tips that leaders can use to handle these situations more effectively. These tips, backed by examples from different sectors, aim to improve communication, resolve issues constructively and ultimately, lead to better results.


1. Allow Space for Emotions

Addressing issues without considering the emotional impact can miss an essential element of effective communication. My executive coaching client Mark, a Chief Marketing Officer in the tech sector, learned this through direct experience in his one-on-one meetings. When dealing with a team member's dissatisfaction due to a delay in a project, Mark opted to address the emotional aspects first. He asked the team member to share their feelings about the situation, a move that significantly changed the course of their conversation.


This focus on emotions did more than just validate the team member's feelings; it laid the groundwork for a deeper and more constructive exchange. Recognizing and acknowledging the team member's emotions from the start fostered a more participative and cooperative atmosphere for addressing the problem. This approach moved the interaction away from potential conflict toward a more collaborative effort, improving the overall quality of the communication.


By prioritizing an understanding of the emotional context early in the conversation, Mark created an environment of openness and trust. This setting was more conducive to jointly developing effective solutions to the problem at hand. Also, this strategy not only helped resolve the immediate issue but also strengthened the foundation of their working relationship, preparing them for more effective communication in future discussions. Mark's experience highlights the importance of emotional awareness in leadership communication, demonstrating how starting conversations by acknowledging emotions can lead to more productive outcomes.


2. The Art of Listening

Effective listening is a cornerstone of leadership, especially when it comes to one-on-one conversations with team members. It's about more than just hearing the words; it's about understanding the full message, including the emotions and intentions behind the words. It is about listening to what is being said but also what is not. Working with Sheryl, serving as a Financial Director in the banking sector, she found great value in this approach. By giving her team members the space to voice their concerns without cutting them off or rushing to judgment, she gained deeper insights into not only what the issues were but also why they mattered so much to her team.


This kind of listening goes beyond the surface, allowing leaders like Sheryl to identify the root causes of problems and not just their outward expressions or actions. When team members feel genuinely heard, they're more likely to share openly and honestly, providing the kind of information that can lead to long-lasting solutions rather than quick, surface-level fixes. This practice of active listening also helps in building a foundation of trust and respect. Team members who feel listened to are more likely to feel valued and understood, which can enhance their engagement and commitment to the team and its goals.


Active listening can significantly reduce misunderstandings that often arise from poor communication. By fully engaging with the speaker and seeking to understand their perspective, leaders can ensure that both parties are on the same page, which is crucial for effective collaboration and problem-solving. This approach not only leads to better outcomes but also fosters a more positive and supportive work environment.


In Sheryl's case, her commitment to listening helped her address her team's concerns more effectively, demonstrating how essential active listening is in leadership. It's a skill that, when practiced consistently, can lead to more effective leadership, stronger teams and better organizational outcomes.


3. Confirming Understanding

Acknowledging a team member's viewpoint without necessarily agreeing with it is a subtle yet powerful aspect of effective communication, especially during challenging conversations. This approach was skillfully navigated by my client Agil, a Division Project Manager in the construction industry, in his one-on-one meetings. When faced with a difficult conversation about a project delay with a team member, Agil took the time to paraphrase the team member's concerns and then asked for confirmation to ensure he had understood correctly.


This method served several key functions in their dialogue. First, it signaled to the team member that Agil was genuinely listening and valuing their input, fostering a sense of respect and validation. More crucially, by rephrasing the concerns raised, Agil was able to eliminate any potential misunderstandings from the outset, ensuring that both parties were working from a common understanding of the issues at hand.


This practice of seeking confirmation after paraphrasing also promoted an environment conducive to open and honest communication. The team member was encouraged to express their concerns fully, knowing they would be accurately understood and not dismissed outright. This level of open dialogue is particularly important in difficult conversations, where emotions can run high and miscommunications can exacerbate the situation.


Also, Agil's approach helped to prevent the escalation of conflict that often arises from misinterpretations. By clarifying any ambiguities early in the conversation, Agil and the team member could focus on addressing the root causes of the issue rather than getting sidetracked by misunderstandings.


In essence, Agil's handling of this difficult conversation highlights the importance of nuanced listening and feedback strategies in leadership communication. By prioritizing understanding and clarity, leaders can navigate challenging discussions more effectively, leading to resolutions that are based on mutual understanding and respect. This approach not only addresses the immediate problem but also strengthens the leader-team member relationship for future interactions.


4. Engage in Dialogue

Using open-ended questions in conversations can lead to more comprehensive understanding and insights, a technique Jason, an IT Director in the healthcare sector, effectively employs during one-on-one discussions with his team members. When faced with challenging decisions or situations, Jason makes it a point to ask his team members about their feelings and thoughts on the matter at hand.

This approach does more than just gather information; it invites a deeper level of engagement and participation from the team member. By framing his questions to allow for expansive answers, Jason opens the door for a more nuanced exchange of ideas. This not only helps him grasp the team member's perspective more fully but also encourages the sharing of concerns and suggestions that might not surface in response to more direct or closed questions.

The practice of asking open-ended questions fosters an environment where team members feel their opinions are valued and considered in the decision-making process. This sense of inclusion leads to solutions that are not only more comprehensive but also more aligned with the team's collective wisdom and experience. In the dynamic and complex field of healthcare IT where decisions can have far-reaching implications, this inclusive approach to problem-solving is particularly valuable.

Jason's strategy also underscores the importance of emotional intelligence in leadership. By genuinely inquiring about his team members' feelings and thoughts, he demonstrates empathy and understanding, key components of effective leadership communication. This not only aids in building stronger and more trusting relationships but also in crafting solutions that are sensitive to the team's needs and concerns.

Jason's use of open-ended questions in difficult conversations exemplifies how leaders can dive deeper into issues, fostering a more collaborative and inclusive atmosphere. This method not only improves the quality of solutions but also strengthens the bond between leader and team member, creating a foundation for more effective and cohesive teamwork.


5. Embrace 'I' Statements

Using personal experience to frame a conversation can significantly enhance empathy and understanding, especially during challenging one-on-one discussions. This strategy - inspired by the Nonviolent Communication language - might be one that is a little more difficult to practice as Eva discovered. An HR Executive in the retail sector and one of my executive coaching clients, Eva however experienced an enormous shift in the tone and outcome of difficult conversations when she started using "I feel..." statements instead of "You are..." accusations. This subtle change in language encouraged a far more open and less defensive exchange between her and her team members.

In one particular instance, Eva needed to address a sensitive performance issue with a senior director reporting to her. Instead of starting the conversation with accusatory statements that could put the employee on the defensive, she chose to express how the situation made her feel and the impact it had on the team. This approach allowed the employee to see the issue from Eva's perspective without feeling personally attacked.

By speaking from her own experience, Eva was able to foster a space where vulnerability was met with empathy rather than resistance. This environment encouraged the team member to share their own feelings and perspective, leading to a more nuanced understanding of the issue at hand. The conversation became a two-way dialogue, where both parties worked together to identify the root causes of the problem and develop a constructive path forward.

Eva's experience underscores the power of personal expression in transforming potentially contentious conversations into opportunities for growth and understanding. By framing her concerns in terms of her own feelings and experiences, she was able to navigate the conversation with greater sensitivity and effectiveness, ultimately leading to more positive and productive outcomes.


6. Recognizing When to Pause

Incorporating pauses into difficult conversations can serve as a strategic tool for de-escalating tension and fostering more reflective dialogue. This tactic was effectively employed by Dan, a Senior Legal Advisor in the entertainment industry, as we were working on improving his challenging day-to-day leadership communication. During a specifically hard one-on-one meeting with one of his team members, when Dan noticed that the discussion was becoming overly emotional and potentially counterproductive, he suggested taking a brief hiatus from the conversation.


This break allowed both Dan and the team member to step back from the immediate intensity of the discussion, providing an opportunity to cool down and collect their thoughts. Such pauses are invaluable in preventing knee-jerk reactions that can further complicate sensitive matters. By temporarily disengaging, both parties could approach the issue with a calmer mindset, leading to exchanges that were more considered and less driven by the heat of the moment.


Moreover, this approach underscored Dan's commitment to a constructive and respectful dialogue, demonstrating to the other person that the goal was to resolve the issue thoughtfully, rather than to win an argument. This not only helped in maintaining a positive working relationship but also set a precedent for handling future disagreements in a similarly productive manner.


In essence, Dan's decision to pause the conversation when emotions escalated exemplifies an effective strategy for navigating difficult discussions. By allowing for a moment of reflection, you can encourage more thoughtful and less reactive communication, ultimately leading to better outcomes for both the yourself and the other parties involved.


7. Define Next Steps

Ending discussions with a well-defined action plan or follow-up steps is crucial for ensuring ongoing progress, especially after a difficult conversation. My client Angelina, a Director of R & D in the pharmaceutical industry, learned to consistently apply this approach in her one-on-one meetings. By collaboratively determining the next steps with her team members at the end of each discussion, Angelina now ensures that both she and the team member have a clear understanding of what is expected moving forward.


This practice of jointly establishing follow-up actions serves multiple purposes. First of all, it reinforces the notion that the conversation was meaningful and aimed at achieving tangible outcomes. Secondly, it keeps both Angelina and the team member mutually committed to the agreed-on actions, enhancing accountability. This shared responsibility creates a sense of partnership and collaboration rather than leaving the team member feeling isolated with the burden of action.


Also, by ending with a sense of forward momentum, Angelina maintains engagement and motivation even after navigating potentially challenging topics. This approach not only clarifies the path ahead but also creates a sense of confidence in the team member that the issues discussed will be addressed and that their contributions are valued in the problem-solving process.


Angelina's method of wrapping up discussions with a clear plan of action exemplifies an effective strategy for maintaining progress and accountability. This technique is especially valuable in ensuring that difficult conversations lead to constructive outcomes and continued development for both the leader and the team member involved.


The Role of Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership is centered on inspiring and motivating team members to surpass their expectations and achieve significant accomplishments. This approach is particularly effective during difficult conversations as it highlights the broader implications and potential for positive change. By using a transformational strategy in challenging discussions, leaders can more easily redirect the focus from current issues to future opportunities and development.

To give you an example, when a project fails to meet its objectives, a transformational leader would not only address the immediate problem but also seize the opportunity to prompt the team to consider the lessons learned and how these insights can drive progress. This strategy not only addresses the immediate concern but also cultivates resilience and a proactive mindset within the team.

This method creates a more positive and engaged environment. even during challenging times, by reminding team members of their capabilities and the overarching objectives. It turns difficult conversations into opportunities for growth and cohesion, emphasizing that every challenge presents a chance for development and progress. This principle of transformational leadership is important for sustaining team morale and motivation, a crucial component during periods of uncertainty or change.


The Power of Intentional Leadership


Being intentional in leadership goes far beyond just having a plan; it's about making sure your actions consistently reflect your core values and the objectives of your organization. This approach helps leaders effectively manage difficult conversations, resulting in a team that is more committed, motivated and productive.


As a leader, I encourage you to think about how you handle challenging conversations and to consider the benefits of being more deliberate in your approach. Adopting a strategic mindset of intentional leadership can turn even very difficult situations into opportunities for growth and improvement. If you would like to have a conversation about how my team and I can help you too, connect with me on LinkedIn or reach out through our website. I am looking forward to hearing from you.




Ulrika Gustafson LL.M PCC is a Certified Executive Coach, former C-suite leader and partner of HAMILTON THERRELL Executive Advisors, an international advisory group of experts in leadership and organizational transformation. She advises CEOs and coaches senior executives in Fortune 100 and 500, startups, family businesses and government institutions on succeeding in demanding environments.

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