This article was initialy published on Forbes.com.
I invest a lot of time learning to have the right and sometimes difficult conversations with members of my consulting team. This is important to me because every day, I see the challenges my clients face when they are unable to have the conversations that need to happen in their organizations. For example, managers and executives express resentment over certain behaviors from their employees instead of talking about it with them or teams express limiting beliefs without ever asking if what they believe is correct or not.
These are examples of conversational debt that happen every day in organizations, but what is the impact of this debt and why should you work at minimizing it as much as you can?
What Is Conversational Debt?
Think about some of the conversations that are happening right now in your professional and personal lives. What are people telling one another? More importantly, what are they not telling one another?
Conversational debt is those discussions that are not currently happening in your organization, in your family and elsewhere in your life that really should be happening.
There are many reasons why these conversations are not happening. We may fear the potential consequences and lack the courage to have them. We may lack the emotional intelligence or the empathy to have them. We may not even realize what is the real conversation that needs to happen.
The Impact Of Conversational Debt In Organizations
Conversational debt can have many different impacts in organizations. For instance, leaders who are unable to express their frustrations or their needs and lash out at people at odd moments. I also often see missing conversations around unproductive behaviors from key employees that set the tone for other employees to act in similar ways because they see a lack of consequences.
Another common result is a low maturity level of a team (or even an entire organization) because people are not talking about the right topics. People protect their turf and their jobs instead of focusing on the bigger picture.
The Impact Of Conversational Debt At Home
While it’s easy to focus on organizations, the truth is that conversational debt can also occur at home with your spouse and your children.
What conversations are you not currently having with your spouse? What is the impact on your relationship of not having these conversations? What is preventing you from having them?
What conversations are you not currently having with your children? What are you not teaching them and what are you missing from their lives by not having them? With my children, I often find myself having conversations with them to help them better express themselves because this is a key skill we do not always learn in school.
Keys To Reducing Your Conversational Debt
Carrying conversational debt is a lot like only paying the minimum due on your credit card; the balance will only grow and eventually it can get overwhelming.
Here are some of the ways you can reduce conversational debt in both your professional and personal lives:
- Raise your personal awareness around the missing conversations. Take the time to truly listen to what people are saying to one another. What do you feel is being said? What is left unsaid? How can you help people say the unsaid?
- There is a distinction between speaking your truth and vomiting your truth. You can speak your truth in a way that is mindful and respectful of the person you are speaking with.
- Be open to hearing different perspectives. Although you may be speaking your truth, remember it is only your perspective and the other person may have their own view of what you are talking about. Listen to better understand, not to argue or convince the other person you are right.
- Be fair and minimize judgments and assumptions. Speak about what you can observe, how you feel about the topic, the needs you may have. Be mindful of the assumptions and the judgments you carry in the conversation.
- Make yourself vulnerable. If you are trying to have a conversation that is potentially difficult for you, let the other person know. You can easily say: “I need to have this conversation with you, but it’s hard for me and I may be awkward at it. Can you give me a break and help me out here?”
Remember, a hard conversation can also be just another conversation. Many of my clients fear conflictual situations and avoid conversations out of fear of creating conflict. My belief is that conversations will be as hard as we decide to make them.
Conversational debt can sometimes be much like an invisible plague in our lives. People often know something is wrong and do not always know how to express it or how to name it.
Although it may be hard to have some of these conversations, there is a cost to not having them at all that will eventually be hard to ignore. When the cost becomes too high, it may be too late to have it.
Personally, one thing I like to do with my own team is practice having challenging conversations when things are going well. My hope is that it allows us to practice doing it, and this will help us talk when things are not going as well.
One key thing to remember is that the only thing you can control in a conversation is your 50% of it. So instead of fearing how the other person may react, begin by focusing on how you conduct your half of the discussion. How you handle yourself influences how the other person responds.
How much conversational debt is there in your life? How do you intend to reduce it in the coming weeks?