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Reading the Room – The Secret to Creating Better-Performing Teams

Reading the Room by David KantorThis post is adapted from a larger interview with prominent systems therapist David Kantor, conducted by Art Kleiner of Strategy + Business.   Kantor is the author of Reading the Room: Group Dynamics for Coaches and Leaders (CLICK HERE to get your copy).

Every once in a while, you meet someone who really knows how to “read a room.” This is the individual, usually a seasoned executive leader, who can walk into a tense meeting and sense why two would-be collaborators are butting heads, why a third manager hardly speaks, and why a fourth seems to be protecting some unspoken priority. Then, with a few words, the room-reader can defuse the problem, get people back on track, and move the team to a new level of productivity. When this type of work is done with an executive team, it can have invaluable impact, rippling out to the rest of the organization.

David Kantor, an innovative family therapist based in Cambridge, Mass., built his career around trying to help people track their conversational interactions, understand the hidden dynamics in them, and learn how to intervene effectively. Kantor makes the case that being attuned to the signals of a conversational system—an approach he calls “structural dynamics”—is the first step toward becoming a far more prescient and effective leader.

Structural Dynamics: Using Conversational Cues to Lead More Effectively

David Kantor speaks with Booz & Company partner Rutger von Post about how leaders can tap into “structural dynamics” to create better-performing teams.

S+B: You suggest, in your book Reading the Room: Group Dynamics for Coaches and Leaders, that most leaders need a better model of human systems. Why is that?

Kantor: In any situation, unseen, unspoken connections among people influence everything that happens. Leaders are typically not aware of these connections, and they can’t be, unless the right conceptual lens is available. The model I’ve developed over the years is a schema for understanding how people talk while they are making decisions together. The theory suggests that communication can be deliberate; that leaders can measure and understand their impact (and everyone else’s impact) in any context where people make decisions. They can also design their own conversations to generate success or failure.

S+B: What do you mean by designing a conversation?

Kantor: Every conversation is made up of individual acts of speech: statements and questions. The speech act is my basic unit of analysis. Every speech act can be categorized as having one of four types of action (being a mover, opposer, follower, or bystander); one of three types of content (power, meaning, or affect); and one of three types of paradigms, or rules for establishing paradigmatic legitimacy (open, closed, or random). These categories combine into 36 different categories of speech acts: the building blocks of human interaction. They can be deliberately sequenced to set the direction of a conversation. Intervening with the right speech act at the right moment can catalyze a shift in thinking or action for everyone in the room.

S+B: What’s the difference between, say, a mover, an opposer, and a bystander?

Kantor: First of all, they’re not categories of people. Although everyone has speech acts that they use more frequently than others, nobody is completely a mover, opposer, bystander, or follower. These are descriptions of vocal actions. Change your vocal action, and you can change how people perceive you. Change what people perceive, and you’ll change how they respond with their own vocal acts.

Let’s start with a single speech act: a statement you make. There are four basic roles you can play in a conversation. You can move: Start something new, like saying, “We need to spend less time in these meetings.” You can follow someone else’s move, by agreeing with it: “Yes, I’ve been concerned about the same thing.” You can oppose the move, raising objections or trying to stop it: “I don’t think that’s right. We need time to cover every topic on the agenda.” And then you can step back from the situation and stand by (or as I call it, “bystand”), reflecting on the actions being made, without agreeing or disagreeing: “Ian wants shorter meetings, Ralph wants to keep them the same length. What does everybody else think?”

A gifted communicator knows how to sequence these into compound actions. So if you’re dealing with fierce opposers, you don’t start off by opposing them. You bystand first. “I see how concerned you are about this decision, and it’s having an effect on the group.” Then you follow. “I think you have reason to be concerned.” Only then do you move. “It seems to me that we’ve got to change our decision and address your concerns, but we can’t lose the momentum of the original plan either.” Three different actions: bystand, follow, move.

S+B: How would I, as a leader, use all this to design a speech act?

Kantor: Everything you say can be framed as a combination of the action, content and paradigm elements. Suppose you’re in a cold room. You could say, “Close that window now.” That’s a closed-system move in power. You could change it to an open-system statement by saying, “It occurs to me that people are wrapping their scarves around their necks. Will somebody near the window step over there and close it?” It is still in power, but now you’re open. You’re giving people a choice; you’re looking for a volunteer. You could also switch it into affect, by saying, “It would be so much nicer if the room was warmer, and people felt more comfortable.” And you could move that into bystanding by saying, “I notice that people feel uncomfortable, but nobody seems to feel like closing the window.”

The goal of structural dynamics is to increase communicative competency, which means every member of the team becomes capable of reading the room. They know which interventions will improve the conversations. They ideally have full knowledge of the limits of their own repertoire so that when a speech action is called for, if they can’t do it themselves, they can call on someone else who is capable of the act.

- This post is adapted from a larger interview with prominent systems therapist David Kantor, conducted by Art Kleiner of Strategy + Business. To read the full article, click here.

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