Start elevating your conversations

Great leadership is about using difficult discussions to create powerful change. Here are 9 tips that can help you achieve that.

The Surdek Team
February 14, 2022
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Almost every day, you can see the impact of not having the right conversations in organizations. This can happen when leaders skirt around thorny topics because they do not want to create a mess in group meetings.

Pause and take a look at the conversations that are currently happening inside your organization. What is the level of quality of these conversations?

Try to notice if the conversations seem useful and productive for the group. Do you hear your colleagues and employees talking about the future or complaining about the past? Are conversations moving forward or spinning in circles? Do people support each other or gossip?

Why elevating conversations is essential

We have written before on the blog about the conversational debt inside organizations and how costly they can be. This is why having the right conversations is crucial and is also a part of being a good leader for your people.

As a leader, you may also feel that your teams are working in silos, and that they are not communicating with each other well in meetings.

In this article, we will go deeper into the nine ways you can elevate the conversation within your teams.

#1-Allow space for expression

Make sure it is clear for the people in the conversation that they will have the space to share their perspective. Create a safe zone where people can express themselves and ensure they will be heard.

When the subject is delicate, participants can feel different things at different times. At the start of the discussion, there can typically be some nervousness and awkwardness. There can also be some frustration or even anger.

Try to really listen and differentiate WHAT the person is saying from HOW they are saying it. Acknowledge the how, but respond to what they are saying.

This means respecting that some things may come from a place of frustration and not reacting to it in kind. This is what creates space for people to have real conversations.

Quick clarification: There is a distinction between just holding a few minutes of tension and allowing someone to scream for an hour. If a conversation gets too emotionally charged, it is OK to press pause. You can say something like: “OK, we are both a bit too emotionally charged right now. How about we take a break and try again in a few days?”

#2-Avoid personal attacks and judgements

It is easy to fall into the blame game of who is right and who is wrong. But when you think about it, this is an unproductive way of finding solutions to problems.

Gossip is another form of judgement. It also creates distrust. When you gossip with people, they can then wonder if you are also talking behind their backs.

To elevate the conversation, stop taking the bait. Avoid responding to attacks or judgements of others, call it out respectfully and then redirect the conversation.

If you are the one being judged, the idea is to not take it personally. This can be hard and there may be times when you slip. How you react to the slip is what can elevate the conversation.

You can say that you are not comfortable with the tone of the conversation. When all else fails, you can always go to the example from earlier to stop the conversation.

#3-Steer clear of generalizations

To maintain a feeling of trust, stick to the facts and not subjective opinions or exaggerations. Words like “always” and “never” are good examples of this. More often than not, they will put the other person in full-on defence mode.

Most likely, they will rack their brains trying to find the one instance where what you are saying was not true. This becomes an invitation to derail the discussion and make it about specifics.

Generalizations and exaggerations actually diminish the impact of your message. This is why you should do your best to remove them from your difficult conversations.

#4-Name and challenge assumptions

It is useful to think about the assumptions you or others may be making. If you do not all have the same skill set or are not doing the same kind of work, you may be making very different assumptions about the same topic.

Elevating the conversation can also be about naming these assumptions that you or the other party may be making. Let's use an example we encountered recently.

In one meeting, a team was blaming management for what they assumed was lack of action surrounding an issue. The manager challenged this assumption by telling them all the different things the management team was doing behind the scenes.

This showed the team that the statement they had made was untrue. It helped make the conversation more productive after that, because the team saw their management's willingness to solve the problem.

#5-Acknowledge perspectives and similarities

When having a difficult conversation, you can get caught up in how you feel and how you see the world. When this happens, you can forget that everyone sees the world through their own lens.

Remember that in some situations, there is a possibility that you are both right. It just depends on how you are looking at things. To elevate the conversation in this situation, you can accept and express the differences in your perspectives.

Trying to find common ground is another tactic. This can take the form of reminding them of your shared values or objectives. If you can see where you are agreeing, it becomes easier to find a solution that works for everyone.

#6-Speak the unspoken

Another way to elevate the conversation is to have the courage to speak about the elephant in the room. Inside the conversation you may find yourself skirting around a topic and not naming something that needs to be named. It is the first step in solving the real problem though.

When the group feels uncomfortable broaching a subject, it often indicates that an issue needs to be addressed. The secret here is in how you will frame what you want to say.

Ask permission first. “Can I bring up something potentially uncomfortable?” Once you get that permission, say what you have to say in the most respectful way possible. Be tactful but honest.

Speaking the unspoken can also be about naming out loud that it feels as if you are all avoiding a topic. This can help defuse tension and ease into the conversation more easily.

#7-Recognize positive efforts

Another way to elevate the conversation is to acknowledge the good intentions of the other people. You can also highlight any positive efforts they made in regards to the situation.

This can help the other person feel that you are acknowledging some positives and not just bringing up negative points.

#8-Call out when people play games

One common example of someone playing games is the typical jokester. People may find the jokester funny in the moment and may try to imitate them. But it can negatively impact the flow of meetings and in the long run it can affect employee morale. Sometimes, the jokester can also be sarcastic. When this happens, they are actually bringing the conversation down.

Instead of getting tangled up in game-playing, become curious. Ask the jokester what they mean by their remark. Is there is a hidden meaning behind what they said? Simply asking this can make the person realize that their intervention is unproductive. Then, you can nudge the conversation in a more positive direction.

If this is a more constant problem, you can have a one-on-one conversation with the jokester. They may honestly believe they are only easing the tension or livening up the room. Name in a respectful way that their attitude in meetings is not helpful for the group.

#9-Drive the conversation forward

When everyone has shared their point of view, it is important to keep the discussion focused on the future. Some people may want to rehash the past or continue venting about the problem. Instead, direct the conversation toward the next steps that need to be taken.


At its most basic level, elevating the conversation is about creating space for people to express themselves freely. That said, some limits have to be set to avoid unhelpful judgment, gossip and exaggerations.

Elevating the level of conversation can also be about naming the assumptions that are going on for you or asking about the assumptions the other person is making. It is also about being courageous and speaking the unsaid.

Acknowledging people's positive contributions and what you have in common is another way to bridge the gap. Finally, calling out jokesters and focusing the conversation on the future can help your team members connect to each other better in meetings.

When you start practicing these tips, you will see that you can have powerful conversations that create lasting change.

How will you elevate your conversations to become a more effective leader? Which of these nine tips will you put into practice?