Conversational leadership: a communication tool to lead and influence organisations


Successful managers no longer rely on the traditional authority of the “command and control” culture to deliver outcomes. Increasing evidence suggests that force and directive behaviour does not lead to long-term commitment. Instead, managers—and project managers, in particular—need to foster relationships and influence to build commitment and accountability in their teams. This requires a whole new management style—one focused around conversational leadership.

Ninety percent of the project manager’s work involves communication—but recent research into how the brain functions suggests we may need to change how we use our communication skills. It’s not necessarily the flashy, highly visible leader that delivers the best results, but the leader whose conversational questioning style elicits new thinking, fosters accountability, and builds commitment and passion.

Using a case study approach, this paper illustrates the communication challenges that project managers encounter daily, and then suggests alternate approaches based on latest research into the neurosciences. Participants will experiment with various conversational and questioning techniques to build trust and develop thinking.

Participants will take away an action plan and the conversational leadership framework to start applying the lessons learned and developing their own communication skills in the real world.


Successful managers can no longer rely on the traditional authority of the 20th century “command and control” culture to deliver outcomes. As then-editor of the Harvard Business Review wrote in her book on changing strategies within corporate America, Rosabeth M. Kanter stated: “The new kind of business hero must learn to operate without the might of the hierarchy behind them. The crutch of authority must be thrown away and replaced by their own ability to make relationships, use influence and work with others to achieve results” (Kanter, 1989, p. 361).

Force and directive behaviour does not lead to long-term commitment or sustainable change. Instead, managers—and project managers in particular—need to build relationships and influence to build commitment and accountability in their teams; this idea was explored in previous papers (see Oschadleus, 2007a, 2007b, 2008).

Project management is about constant communication—anecdotal figures suggest up to 90% of a project manager’s time is consumed with this. On the one hand is the formal communication, consisting of the communications management plan, along with elements such as requirements gathering, sign-off on documentation, negotiation of requirements, scope, and contract, performance reviews, status reporting, and so the list goes on. Many of these activities cover the management side of what a project manager does. On the other hand is the project manager’s leadership duty, largely undertaken through informal communication— influencing, motivating, inspiring, harnessing creativity, and resolving conflict.

Both aspects are essential elements of what the project manager does.

Recent research into how the brain functions suggests we may need to change how we use our communication capabilities and apply our leadership skills. It’s not necessarily the flashy, highly visible leaders or standout presenters that deliver the best results (see Collins & Porras, 1997), but the leader whose conversational questioning style elicits new thinking, fosters accountability, and builds commitment and passion. This requires a whole new style and toolkit focused around conversational leadership.

Challenges with Current Communication and Leadership Styles

The barriers to communication have been well documented in the literature (see, for example, Oschadleus, 2004). We focus here on two specific challenges: how leaders engage with subordinates (particularly when it comes to dealing with problems), and how to respond when opposition arises, particularly when this happens in unplanned conversations.

The Problem-Solver’s Dilemma

Many managers consider themselves problem-solvers. That’s part of the job description. Rock (2006) suggested four possible approaches to problem solving, as outlined in Exhibit 1. The first dimension is built around the polar opposites of telling versus asking (or selling). Frequently managers tell their staff what to do, rather than asking them to think through the problem. This “command and control” style of leadership dominated much of the 20th mindset, and remains a common approach to leadership; simply because many senior and more experienced people in an organisation believe they are expected to know the answers. It may even be true: in many cases managers do know the answers and do have the experience to make judgment calls.

But in the fast-moving, dynamic world of the 21st century this approach has several problems. The pace of change is so great that often managers no longer have the experience of the knowledge of the subject at hand. People closer to the work being done will have a far better idea of what needs to happen and how.

However, a more immediate problem with this approach is the lack of buy-in or ownership from the team; there is no mutual accountability when people are simply told what to do. This is clearly demonstrated in the inexperienced project manager’s approach to planning, where we know that the project manager who simply sits down and creates a task list to distribute to team members will face opposition. Instead, create a framework (e.g., the work breakdown structure [WBS]) within which the team can develop the detail in a manner that will resonate with them.

Approaches to Problem Solving (based on Rock, 2006)

Exhibit 1: Approaches to Problem Solving (based on Rock, 2006).

There is a simple principle involved here: if I tell you something, you can dispute it. The more vehemently you disagree with my point of view (or what you think my point of view will be), the less inclined you are to listen to what I’m saying. Selective hearing enables you to pick up only the points you want to, or need in order to build a counter-argument or to find the exceptions that would invalidate what I have just said.

Recent neuroscience supports this conclusion. Because our conscious, working memory is extremely limited and energy intensive, the brain attempts to allocate incoming signals to existing patterns or mental models, which develop in the subconscious mind from birth. These mental models direct our instinctive behaviour and habits, and give expression to our mental prejudices. At its simplest level, the mental models prevent us from seeing the world as it really is, and to generalise, distort, or even reject signals that challenge our existing beliefs.

Telling people to work differently or think differently is more likely to create defensiveness, rather than promote change or insight. Leading people to their own insight about inefficient work practices is far more likely to bring about the desired results, which are potentially even better than what a single person may have envisaged. This approach relates to the opposite dimension identified by Rock (2006), namely to ask people questions. This is more akin to the “sell” approach: any good sales training course teaches people to raise questions that evoke desire in the minds of the potential buyer, and to get the buyer to sell him- or herself on the product or concept.

If you come up with an idea, it becomes part of your own mental model, and therefore something to be defended. As leaders, we should stop telling people what we want them to do or think. Rather, we should help them develop new insights—new mental connections that create a changed world view—and let them arrive at their own conclusions.

The selling approach is best done by letting them convince themselves, which means helping them gain new insight. In order for this to work, the attention of people needs to be focused on finding solutions, rather than dwelling on problems. This means becoming aware of problems, as will be noted later, but not to focus too much attention on the problem.

These four approaches have a fundamentally different impact on how people think, and the degree of ownership they take over the final outcome. The self-directed solution-focused approach (asking people questions to help them identify solutions) is the most productive. The question is: why does it not happen more frequently?

The answer is a core dilemma for problem-solvers. Managers who solve problems think they are doing their job. Furthermore, as noted in Oschadleus (2007b, 2008), solving problems leads to an adrenaline rush, which gives people a “high,” and boosts his or her self-worth. As noted psychologist Elias H. Porter (1973) wrote, one of the fundamental premises governing human behaviour is that we act in ways that will help us feel worthwhile about ourselves.

Responding to Perceived Opposition

The “telling” versus “selling” approach is one major challenge that leaders must overcome. The second challenge is understanding how people respond to perceived opposition or conflict. Porter’s (1973) second premise of human behaviour is that people’s motivational values change when perceived conflict arises. His Strength Deployment Inventory (SDI) tool outlines three levels of escalation when confronted by conflict:
Level 1: Address the issue, while protecting self-worth and the worth of the other person
Level 2: Focus on the issue and maintaining self-worth
Level 3: Protect self-worth at all costs

The more the conflict escalates, the more we begin focusing on our own self-worth, and less on the well-being of the other person(s) or even the issue at hand.

People move through these stages at different speeds and using varying behavioural patterns, depending on their unique motivational value systems. However, at a more generic level it comes down to two broad responses: fight or flight.

When we perceive a threat to our well-being, our body’s natural “fight or flight” defence mechanism kicks in. Adrenaline is pumped into our bloodstream, increasing the ability of legs and arms to either lash out or run away. Our emotional senses are heightened, while blood is simultaneously diverted away from areas the brain considers to be of less importance at that precise moment. One of the less important areas is the prefrontal cortex, which is the seat of rational thought.

Rock (2006) identified four basic threats to our working memory (i.e., our concept of self-worth):

  • When we face uncertainty (a small amount of uncertainty stimulates creativity, but too much uncertainty causes pressure and stress)
  • A perceived lack of autonomy
  • A perceived lack of fairness
  • A perceived loss of status.

When faced with perceived opposition or conflict—i.e., at times where we should be thinking more rationally— human nature takes over and we allow subconscious emotions to direct our thinking. The concept of emotional intelligence (i.e., being able to identify and control our emotional responses) is gaining considerable momentum within the wider project management community, and there is a growing recognition that effective project managers need to be emotionally mature. The remainder of this paper tackles this issue from a slightly different perspective.

The Role of “Crucial Conversations”

Leadership is about communication. Some of it is formal, but the majority of communication (and leadership) takes place in the informal setting of everyday conversations we have with managers, employees, or clients. It is our responses to these spontaneous everyday conversations that define our ability to lead. Some of these conversations become “crucial” because of the impact they can have on the lives and futures of the individuals, the projects, and even the organisations involved.

Crucial conversations are defined by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler (2002, p. 3) as “a discussion between two or more people where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions are strong.”

When we have time to plan it all through—to identify our stakeholders, map their communication preferences, identify their underlying interests and motivations, tailor our messages accordingly…—if we have the time, we can pull off these crucial conversations. However, frequently these interactions happen spontaneously. Having had little or no time to plan, we have to “make it up” as we go along, which adds to the pressure. We are trying to think ahead, listen, and respond all at the same time, while our rational brain is being starved of the very sustenance it needs to function. As previously noted, our body is preparing itself for fight or flight, and our rational thought processes are hindered at the very time we need them to function most effectively.

Unfortunately, the manner in which we deal with those crucial conversations is largely dependent on the conversational styles and patterns that are created in even seemingly insignificant conversations.

Hardly surprisingly, more often than not, crucial conversations are handled badly.

The Concept of Conversational Leadership

Defining leadership is perhaps one of the most written-about concepts around. For the purposes of this paper the Oxford English Dictionary definition will suffice: a leader is a “Person who guides; influences into action, opinion or state.”

A leader is not necessarily a senior person in the organisation, nor is it a hierarchical position; rather, as Maxwell (2005) asserted, it is a decision a person at any level of the organisation makes to start impacting on people around him or her. In other words, it is more about an attitude toward others and organisational goals, than it is about formal position or status.

Literature is filled with numerous models and theories of how leadership is exercised, and what leadership styles are most effective in any given situation. Whatever style or theory is used, communication is the fundamental building block of them all.

The “conversational” aspect of the title refers to one of the most common communication interactions between people. Conversation, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the informal talk between people. It is what happens socially, around the water cooler or in the corridor. It happens when leaders walk around and engage with others, building relationship, familiarity and trust, while promoting objective-oriented critical-thinking skills.

This paper suggests that the most effective form of sustainable leadership is developed through effective and meaningful informal discussions (i.e., conversations) with others, which help them develop their thinking and new insight.

A Foundation of Shared Meaning

At the very core of successful communication is the free flow of relevant information. Patterson et al. (2002, p. 20) defined the word “dialogue” as “the free flow of meaning between two or more people.” They describe it as a shared pool of meaning, to which all participants contribute so that a more complete picture can be developed.

This idea was first expressed by Luft and Ingham in their Johari Window concept (Luft, 1969), and describes the process of human interaction using a four paned “window,” which divides personal awareness into four different types, as represented by its four quadrants: open, hidden, blind, and unknown. The lines dividing the four panes are like window shades, which move as conversations and relationships develop.

The quadrants represent the degree of shared meaning the parties to a conversation have:

  1. The “open” quadrant represents things that both parties know about each other (facts, interests, feelings, motives, etc.). Initially, this is a small window, but as people get to know each other the size of shared knowledge increases.
  2. The “hidden” quadrant represents things that I know about myself—that you do not know. As people get to know and trust each other, self-disclosure occurs—in other words, the “open” quadrant expands, and, if the degree of self-disclosure from both parties is equivalent, honest, and transparent, the pool of shared meaning grows larger.
  3. The “blind” quadrant represents things that others may know about you, but of which you yourself are unaware. Whether people are prepared to disclose this to you again depends on the level of trust between you and how they believe you will react to this potential “opposition.”
  4. The “unknown” quadrant represents things that neither party knows about the other. In our context, it may represent the problem to be solved. By truly engaging in conversations we develop new awareness of others and of potential solutions to issues of which we may not have been aware.

The process of enlarging the open quadrant is called self-disclosure, a give-and-take process between interacting parties. When parties are interested in getting to know and understand each other, and as long as the environment is perceived as being a “safe” one, they will reciprocate by moving relevant information from their respective hidden quadrants into the open quadrant.

While disclosure happens as a normal part of ongoing relationships, in crucial conversations you need to mutually agree on the purpose and outcome of the conversation. Once this is done, there are fundamental prerequisites before continuing: you need to stay focussed on what you really want to achieve out of a conversation (for yourself, others and the relationship between you), and you need to determine how you would behave if you really desired that outcome.

The Safety Zone

The safety zone is an integral part of the shared pool of meaning. As long as people feel safe to continue disclosing information they will continue to do so. The moment one party feels threatened, the defensive walls go up and the brain prepares for fight or flight. Patterson et al. (2002) referred to this as the “silence or violence” responses (see Exhibit 2).

Silence and Violence Behaviours

Exhibit 2: Silence and Violence Behaviours

This requires the communicators to be aware of physical, emotional, or behavioural cues that signal when the other person may feel their safety is at risk, and then to diffuse that tension. Diffusing the tension requires understanding what is at risk.

The Conversational Leadership Framework

What leaders need to do is have conversations with others, which (1) creates a safety zone in which all participants are contributing to shared meaning, and (2) stimulates creativity and insight. One of the foundations to achieving this occurs through how we ask questions. The final section of this paper will outline a few key criteria for questioning techniques that stimulate thinking in a safe environment. The model is outlined here in very simplistic form, but will be elaborated practically by means of a case study.

Create Awareness and Establish Mutual Purpose

When engaging in a crucial conversation, which is designed to change opinions or mindsets, or to solve a problem, create an awareness of what needs to be achieved, and what the outcome will be. Ensure that this is agreed on. Allow people time to reflect through asking questions that stir the mind.

Gain Permission

Asking people to think requires getting their permission. Doing so builds trust and respect, and gives the other person a greater sense of security. Failing to do so creates defensiveness and stops people listening. Remember that permission operates at different levels, and is contextual.

Typical permission questions include:

  • Could I probe that a little further?
  • I’d like to have a more open conversation than we’ve had before. Would it be okay if I asked you some specific questions right now?
  • Can we spend a few minutes brainstorming ideas around this?
  • I’d like to understand more about your thinking in that area. Would you be okay to talk more about it?

Anchor the Conversation

Anchor the conversation by checking where you are (have been), and where you’re going. It addresses the “why, when, how, and who” of the conversation, and ensures that both parties are talking about the same thing.

Anchoring does the following:

  • Sets the scene
  • Establishes how long you will speak for
  • Outlines where you’re coming from
  • States the goal of the conversation
  • Identifies what you would like them to do in the conversation
  • Clarifies how you would like them to listen
  • Suggests what will happen in the conversation
  • Establishes what you’re looking to achieve in the dialogue.

The more complex the discussion, the frequently you need to re-anchor your thoughts.

Ask Questions that Stimulate Thinking

This is perhaps the most challenging part of the whole exercise. All questions are not equal and some lead to defensiveness, while others lead to revelation and insight. The right questions, asked in the right way, are one of the most powerful communication tools available to any manager. When we start asking the right questions we stir the mind, we create awareness, and we move people toward action.

Questions create insight, develop thinking, and change behaviour. We have a common tendency to jump into solution mode and to solve the surface problems as soon as we see them. This has a two-fold risk: the solution addresses a symptom, not the cause. And the “solution” comes too quickly, before the pain has been felt.

Clarify Understanding

Clarification gets to the bottom line of the conversation. The more complex the conversation, the more essential it is to capture the key concepts and ideas in a few precise words. It emphasises the essence of what was said, shows that you have been listening, but adds value by taking the drama out of the situation.

Ideally, this should involve a short, clear sentence of less than 10 words. It requires listening intently for patterns, rather than details. Listen for the following:

  • What is the person trying to say?
  • What are they not saying?
  • What is the emotional context of what they are saying?
  • What’s behind their words—i.e., what do they really feel?
  • What’s the essence of what they’re saying?
  • What are they saying that they can’t hear for themselves?

If you have clarified correctly you will see the nods. Even if you don’t have it quite right, they will correct you and you can move on. But it requires taking a risk and trusting your intuition. It requires stepping back from the details, listening to people as their potential, and focusing on emotions and learning. Be succinct, specific, and generous in your response.


This paper has noted that successful managers can no longer rely on the traditional authority of the “command and control” culture to deliver outcomes. Instead, managers—and project managers in particular—need to develop a new approach, one focused around conversational leadership.

The paper presented challenges to traditional leadership communication and suggested a model to utilise everyday conversations and a new style of questioning that creates awareness, stimulates thinking, and develops insight. The paper is supplemented by a case study, which seminar participants used to practically apply the techniques outlined, and then develop an action plan to translate their insights into the own communication challenges.

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© 2009, Jürgen Oschadleus
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia



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