What is your organization’s critical conversation quotient?

In a few days, I have the opportunity to speak at the City Club of Cleveland about Kent State’s commitment to the concept of meaningful voice and the way this focus is shaping the critical thinking, civil discourse and civic engagement dispositions of our students.

While this topic is of particular interest as Election Day draws near, it also has relevance in our everyday business environments in the form of critical conversations.

Critical conversations close big deals, achieve agreements, negotiate differences, offer constructive feedback, and begin and sometimes end relationships.

Seasoned, successful business leaders became successful in part because they have mastered the critical conversation skill and mindset. It is a muscle that becomes toned with repeated use, and we have seen how critical conversations managed well can build relationships, cultivate creativity and usher breakthroughs.

Successful critical conversations share some common components: involving the right person or people; the presence of an optimal mindset; and a focus on desired outcomes. While we often discuss the need to “have the right people around the table”, we can sometimes have too many people to have an effective critical conversation.

The optimal mindset includes a willingness to listen to others’ perspectives and the commitment to balancing honest feedback with respect for the person. Finally, entering conversations with a clear understanding of your objectives can go a long way toward easing anxieties that may exist about the impending conversation.

It is also a good practice to conduct an honest analysis afterward of the extent to which the objectives have been met.

Sometimes, the most critical of conversations are the ones we are not having; those we avoid because of difficult or sensitive topics, or because we expect they will result in conflict. Sometimes, we avoid conversations because we know they will call for additional critical conversations.

This is where the connection between critical conversations and the bottom line becomes very clear.

How many opportunities are we missing to improve the performance of an employee? How is organizational climate affected by an unaddressed issue? How many disputes could have been avoided had a critical conversation taken place differently or sooner?  How many critical conversations are being avoided in your organization?

I believe one of the most important characteristics of a high-performing professional community is caring; an other-centeredness that calls all participants to a level of responsibility for each other; for elevating each other’s performance; for making wise use of institutional resources; and, in the case of Kent State University, for honoring the public trust.

Caring also influences the way we engage interpersonally by building capacity for effective discourse regardless of the intensity, temperature, or importance of the topic.

This is the kind of community we aim to shape and model for our students at Kent State. As a result, we are developing in them the courage and skills necessary to take part in and lead some of future’s most important conversations both in and out of the workplace.

Beverly Warren is president at Kent State University.