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Take note of leaders’ unique approaches and phrases in meetings. What works, what doesn’t work, and why?

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‘Help me reconcile these two truths.’

‘I hear you. Got it.’

‘I totally understand why you want to make XYZ happen. But we’re aiming for ABC, so we won’t be doing XYZ.’

These are just a few of the many great phrases I’ve jotted down after hearing other leaders say them. Some came up during roleplays of difficult conversations; others came up during tough meetings or Q&As in an All Hands.

It’s easy to spot when leaders have said something they shouldn’t have said – the conversation went sideways, there was more confusion, people’s voices got tenser, and someone left the room. But it’s a lot harder to notice the magic of particular phrases or approaches when you see someone do it.

Watch and listen

As you attend your normal docket of meetings, practice paying attention to more than just the content of the meeting. Notice how your peers and other leaders speak. What do they say? How do they say it?

This isn’t easy to do. If you’re in the meeting to begin with, it’s because you need to pay attention to the content – a big decision is being made, you want to weigh in, and you may need to ask questions. But whenever you can sit back and move into observation mode instead of participation mode, you have an opportunity to spot things you haven’t seen before.

Watch how other people:

  • Change the direction of the conversation. How did they change the topic? What did they say? Did they acknowledge the shift, or not?
  • Pause a conversation. What did they do with their tone or their body language? Did they pause the conversation directly, or gently? How did the energy shift in the room when they did that?
  • Decrease tension. Perhaps by naming what’s happening in the room.
  • Create clarity. Did they drive consensus? Did they give direction? What questions did they ask, or what statements did they make?
  • Say no. Did it get tense? Was there relief? How did they do it?
  • Push back or disagree. Did it feel like they used a Jedi mind trick, or were they really blunt? What words did they choose? What effect did those words have?

Some of these bullet points are facilitation skills, and others are leadership skills. Of course, leaders can be facilitators and vice-versa, but these roles have two very different goals!

Someone in a facilitator role will be focused on moving a conversation forward, balancing voices, pushing for clarity, and ensuring a group has the tools and information they need to accomplish the meeting goal. Someone in a leadership role will be focused on the content and outcome of that conversation; they’ll have a vote, an opinion, and a responsibility to make sure any decisions made are the right ones.

Branch out

Next, identify three meetings that you don’t normally attend, and ask if you can sit in and observe them. For example:

  • If you’re in Engineering, sit in on the Product team’s All Hands.
  • Ask your boss if you can shadow them some time at a meeting you don’t normally go to.
  • Observe sales and customer support calls.

When you ask to sit in, explain why you want to observe. For example:

  • ‘I’m working on new ways to try and create clarity for my team, so I’d love to see how leaders in your part of the organization do that.’
  • ‘I’m wrestling with giving direction to folks who all want a vote in a decision. I know you all are practiced at this; can I shadow some time and just see how you do it?’
  • 'Managers in our group don’t really know how this part of the business works. I’d love to learn via osmosis sometime; I think it would really help our group get better at this work – and better at supporting you, too.’

As you observe people using each of these skills in meetings, note what works, what doesn’t work, and why you think that is. Pinpoint three new techniques or phrases to begin experimenting with.

Borrow and practice

Once you’ve identified those three new techniques or phrases to practice, experiment with them in different settings!

You can absolutely practice them in real-time; try out a new phrase or conversation technique in a 1:1, team meeting, or other routine venue. Note the effect it has on you, and on the other person or people in the room. When might it be useful to employ again? When shouldn’t you say or do that thing?

You can also practice it in a safer setting, like roleplaying upcoming feedback with a peer. I’ve come up with some fake scenarios for you to practice with if you don’t feel comfortable using a real-life example. Schedule a meeting with a handful of peer managers, and take turns running through these scenarios and giving each other feedback on how it went. Take this opportunity to practice conversation approaches and phrases that you saw other leaders use, and see how it works for you!

Importantly, someone else’s approach won’t always work for you. During a really awful workplace experience, I confided in my manager that I was worried about retaliation from a senior leader. He looked me straight in the eyes and said, ‘Lara, I am your sword, and I am your shield. Use me.’ This moment made me feel so much better – he was in my corner, ready to stand by my side, supporting me no matter the outcome.

He is the only person I’ve ever worked with who could pull off that phrase. If I said the same thing with the same intensity to my teammate, she would laugh her head off! And there’s a bunch of things that only you can effectively say and do, too. But it’s important to keep experimenting, and constantly expand your leadership toolbox. You never know when you might need a new approach or a new phrase to achieve the outcome you’re looking for.