Tips for Conversations that Matter: Competencies

  • There are inherent challenges when there is power at the table.  Foundation professionals who are interested in putting money aside to find out what is really going on and moving the conversation to a place where help that is really helpful can be discussed, can use a coaching orientation to hone their conversation skills.
  • Just as in any relationship where there are agendas at hand, it is tempting to be sitting in the “knowing place” – a place where you believe you know what is going on and are ready with advice before you have the conversation.  If you are interested in having conversations that matter, it is important to make yourself aware when you are slipping into the “knowing” mode.
  • The first thing worthy of experimentation is to see how to be in conversations without giving advice.  Remember that the less you talk, the more you will learn.
  • Notice what kind of questions you normally ask.  When we are in our “knowing mode” we tend to ask a lot of close-ended questions.  “Is your organization in a place to manage such a grant?”  This is in contrast to “Tell me about your organization and what phase it is in.  What are the challenges that you are facing in your organization?”
  • Transparency is critical.

Presence, Deep Listening & Leading from Behind:
Three Important Competencies for Conversations that Matter

Presence:  The awareness that you are fully present to have a conversation.  It is the pre-work that goes into having the conversation.

How to develop presence:

  • Notice your inner dialog.  What kind of judgments are you making?
  • Clear the daily clutter of your life to be accessible in the conversation.  Prior to the conversation or meeting, do some thinking about how you can be available in a way that adds value to the other person.
  • Welcome an open conversation.  Be open to wherever the conversation may go, including that this individual that you are sitting with may tell you things you don’t want to know.
  • Model the full focus of attention.  In today’s world, being really listened to is a gift.

You are engaging with presence when:

  • You are able to step out of the details and ask broad questions like “How will this change your organization or your community?”
  • There are several things that are happening simultaneously.  You are learning things you need to now, but you are also developing the relationship.
  • You will notice the outcomes are different when you are fully present.

Deep Listening:  When you are listening deeper than the level of the words spoken, you are able to glean more information  Deep listening is what gets us into a collaborative space so we can explore the possibilities.

How to develop deep listening:

  • Practice curiosity
  • Notice the energy shifts in the grantee
  • Ask rather than tell
  • Keep your questions simple

The importance of deep listening:

  • Our natural propensity “to tell” comes from a place of caring – especially when we are hired because we have a wide world view to share.  But remember that change generally does not happen out of advice given.  Think about when you have been faced with a tough decision and people have given you advice that you did not want to hear.  The advice feels like we aren’t being heard or attended to.  We change from the inside out.  Help the recipient come to solutions that create a more sustained shift.

Leading from Behind:  This means remembering that the grantee comes first and that people need to find their own solutions.

Important “Leading from Behind” Considerations:

  • Helping another find solutions to the challenges is the most important work.
  • Helping them to uncover the right resources will move them to the change much more rapidly than telling them how.
  • It is important to recognize that we are not the ones on the ground doing the work, but that we have a shared priority.  Our big picture view can be a good value added.

How to lead from behind:

  • Notice how often you give advice; notice your tendency to “tell”;
  • Notice how often your advice gets ignored;
  • Notice your level of desire to fix things;
  • It is critical to empower the grantee to find the solution, not necessarily to take ours as the best, but to explore the situation together.

The Three Most Powerful Questions to Ask Yourself When You Want Conversations to Matter:

  1. What assumptions am I making?
  2. How else can I think about this situation?
  3. What is the other person feeling, thinking, needing, wanting?

From Program Officer as Coach:  Tips from a Professional Coach on Conversations that Build Capacity
November 6, 2007 Topical Conference Call with Pamela McLean, Ph.D., Professional Coach and President of the Hudson Institute of Santa Barbara


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