Overcoming Conversational Debt: Strategies for Better Team Dynamics

Discover effective strategies and insights to tackle conversational debt. The end result for you: improved team communication, team dynamics and boosted morale.

Steffan Surdek
February 19, 2024
Brooke cagle Tx S Vq Ngnjq4 unsplash

Have you ever been part of a team where things left unsaid seem to loom larger than the conversations you actually have? Have you felt the weight of unaddressed issues and avoided discussions cast a shadow over team meetings and decision-making? I like to call this concept conversational debt.

In my years of coaching management teams, I see firsthand how conversations that do not happen, or those the team continually postpones, can accumulate like an invisible burden. Conversational debt encompasses everything that you and your colleagues know you need to discuss but do not. Whether they are those critical, high-stakes discussions your team shelves or the smaller, seemingly innocuous ones your team overlooks or is unaware they can have.

Conversational debt is more than just a communication gap. It is a growing liability that can hinder team performance, morale, and even your personal well-being.

My personal story with conversational debt

When I started coaching management teams a long time ago, I did not have a lot of confidence in myself as a coach. I used to worry a lot about saying the wrong thing, making my client mad and losing business because of it. When I think about it now, I realize that all these conversations I avoided were contributing to maintaining the status quo with my clients.

When I noticed my pattern of avoidance, I found a different way to avoid the discussion. I asked a more experienced coach working with us to have those conversations. It was convenient for me because if things did not change, it was not my fault. I merely brought up the conversations that needed to happen. In a way, it was the other coach's problem, and ultimately his fault from that moment onwards.

Interestingly enough, at one point, the other management coach left the company and there was no one else for me to push these discussions on. So I made the choice to step up and have these conversations the best way that I could. What I learned from this experience was that I never encountered a situation where the client truly got angry with me.

After overcoming my own hurdles in communication, I started to notice similar patterns of avoidance in the teams I coached. Conversational debt, whether in the form of unspoken concerns, unresolved conflicts, or simply people hesitating to voice their opinions, can significantly derail team collaboration and trust. It is one of the biggest leadership challenges that no one talks about.

In this article, I will share strategies to identify and reduce conversational debt, enhancing both individual and team performance. But first, let's consider this together – when is the last time you observed conversational debt within your team?

How can you recognize conversational debt?

As a leader, you know that effective team communication is the linchpin for success in your organization. Look out for these signs in your workplace that may indicate the presence of conversational debt:

  • Elephants in the room: Are there obvious issues that everyone avoids discussing? Try to notice important topics that everyone knows but no one openly addresses.

  • Energy shifts: Do you notice a change in the room's energy when someone speaks up on a sensitive topic? This can be a telltale sign of underlying issues the team is not openly talking about.

  • Awkward pauses or silences: Are there moments of uncomfortable silence during discussions on certain subjects? These pauses can indicate topics that are off-limits or generate unease.

  • Circular discussions: Do meetings go around in circles with no conclusion or action items? This might suggest that you or your team is avoiding delving into the heart of the matter.

  • Decision avoidance: Is there a tendency in the group to postpone or avoid making collective decisions? Look out for this sign that conversational debt is hindering your team's ability to move forward.

  • Passive-aggressiveness: Are members of your team expressing their dissatisfaction indirectly or through inaction instead of speaking up? If you notice this indirect mode of communication, it often means there are unaddressed issues within your team.

  • Miscommunication and misunderstandings: Is there a pattern of people not being on the same page and creating roadblocks in conversations? This is often a symptom of a lack of open and honest communication.

  • Decline in team morale: Are team members less enthusiastic or motivated than usual? Employees can veome disengaged as a consequence of unresolved conversational debt.

If you answered “YES” to any of these questions, it is highly likely that conversational debt is affecting your organization’s dynamics or team communications.

As a leader, recognizing and addressing these signs in the moment is the first step in breaking the cycle.

How to tackle conversational debt and improve your team communications

There are many ways to work on and address conversational debt. In this section, we will explore four foundational strategies that you can use to improve team collaboration and team performance while also reducing your conversational debt.

1. Create more trust and safety within your team

The foundation of strong team communication is to create emotional safety between members of your team. Sometimes, especially in groups with high performers and achievers, people are very demanding of themselves and others.

This creates an environment where people do not feel safe to be vulnerable with each other. People will tend to be very uncomfortable expressing their doubts, asking for help or even admitting their mistakes.

As a leader, you need to notice how you are contributing to create this lack of safety. Sometimes going first and making yourself vulnerable in front of your team goes a long way. Other times, it can be as simple as keeping things safe when other people express their vulnerability, or taking the time to acknowledge it and thank the person for doing it.

2. Foster active listening and encouragement

Another strategy is to encourage active listening on your team. Often, people listen to mentally prepare their answer, instead of trying to really understand what the other person is communicating. You can help people voice their thoughts and opinions by asking open-ended questions and digging deeper into their answers.

Active listening is also about being able to take a step back for your team and summarize where you are at in the conversation. This is an interesting leadership challenge for leaders because this forces you to learn how to guide the conversation instead of directing it.

Active listening also helps the team clarify their thoughts and understand what they are trying to say. Eventually, you want to develop your team members so that they can do this with each other as well.

The encouragement here is two-fold. Part of it is encouraging people to participate in the discussion. The other part is making sure the team can recognize the value of their contribution and build upon it.

3. Look for missing conversations

When I led a team at one point in my career, I would talk to one of my friends about the conflicts and leadership challenges I was facing. He used to ask me which conversations I had with my colleagues about these topics. It used to drive me crazy because more often than not, he was right — I was not talking about my challenges and frustrations at all with my team.

The notion of missing conversations implies that we can choose the conversation we want to have with the people involved in our issues. We can choose to talk about a topic with them in a productive way or an unproductive way. The trick is to pick the right one and to steer the conversation accordingly.

To find the missing conversation, the key for you is to ask the other person to tell you more about the conversations they had with whoever else is involved in the issue. Ask for details: How did they approach it? Which words, which tone did they use? What was their original goal in having that conversation and did they achieve that goal?

The insights you will get from their answers will help you see if there are other ways that you would approach the same conversation. It can also help you determine if the conversation they chose to have was a productive one in that situation.

Another angle to this notion is that sometimes, we are not having a conversation because we just do not know it is a possibility. If you can show the other person this new possibility, it will also help them have the discussion in a different way.

4. Practice together as a team

In my work with clients, I often encourage them to tackle conversational debt through open conversations. It may sound easy, but there is a lot more to it. One approach we often use is to make working on it a team goal for a certain period of time.

This typically means that they need to set some ground rules together to contribute to creating safety. For example, we create a working agreement between team members for acceptable versus unacceptable behaviour during meetings. We also create frameworks around conflict, deciding as a team which behaviours are acceptable and which ones are not.

We will also bring up certain key phrases or keywords they can use when they want the team to be in practice mode. When they are in practice mode, it means they need to be more patient with each other, not take things personally and work on being curious instead.

Another way that we practice is by having meetings where we are explicitly trying something different. For example, with some clients, we will have meetings where we ask people to challenge the ideas of their leader openly and freely. It is uncomfortable at first sometimes, until people realize this is safe to do and ultimately make it a habit.


In summary, conversational debt is not just a challenge you face in your workplace. It is also an opportunity for you to promote growth and transformation within your team.

By creating a trusting and safe environment, actively listening, identifying and addressing missing conversations, and collectively practicing these skills, you can significantly reduce conversational debt in your teams. This leads to improved communication, stronger team dynamics, and ultimately, a more productive and positive workplace culture.

Remember, the journey to overcoming conversational debt starts with the willingness to acknowledge its presence and the commitment to work through it... together!

What specific steps can you take to reduce conversational debt in your professional environment? How might these changes impact your team's performance and morale?

Are you ready to tackle conversational debt in your team and transform the way you communicate and collaborate? If you are looking for personalized guidance or to explore tailored strategies for your team, I'm here to help.

Contact me for a consultation, or visit our coaching page to learn more about my coaching services. Together, we can turn conversational challenges into stepping stones for your team's success!