Conversational Habits are a High Performing Team’s Superpower

By Lisa Blosser
Partner, Next Step Partners

Next Step Partners Team Conversation Habits

Your experience of work is your experience in teams. 

Most people spend 80%+ of their work time “teaming:” working with a collection of individuals who come together for a shared purpose. 

Gone are the days of stable, intact teams that remain constant for years. Today’s teams are dynamic, ever-evolving, and fluid. Cross-organizational teaming is now a regular part of organizational life. Yet, most teamwork models are outdated and fail to capture the emerging skills of today’s most effective leaders.

That’s where team coaching comes in. We help teams learn two of the most important and difficult skills of high performance: assessing their current working patterns (in the moment) and course-correcting them repeatedly. 

And it all starts with awareness. 

Here’s an example of one way we help a team ‘see itself’. 

Picture a seasoned executive team who thought they knew themselves well, individually and collectively. We asked each Executive to share something happening in their life, and every person in the team got to ask them a question…but it had to start with the word ‘What.’ What was that like for you? What did you do next?

The idea was not only to deepen understanding and connection, but also to give us a diagnostic view of how the team behaved. 

During the debrief, we asked what they noticed. 

It started with what you might imagine: “Wow, I’ve known you for years and I never knew that story.”

So, we asked them to look more closely—as an observer—at the types of questions they saw themselves asking. 

The result? Every single question, except one, was an action oriented problem-solving question. No one asked deeper exploration questions, such as ‘What was that experience like?’

“That’s interesting, where else does that come up?” I asked. 


Someone replied: “That’s what we do in every meeting.” 

They quickly realized their number one team dynamic habit was trying to problem solve without listening or probing deeper. Light bulb moment! 

From there we then explored the impact this had on their decisions, strategy and outcomes.

This technique allowed them to see their conversational pattern playing out. 

It’s one of the small ways in which a team coach reveals the team to itself—to help make what is invisible, visible. 

High performing teams pay attention to how they are having the conversation, even when it's uncomfortable. Click To Tweet Lower performing teams shy away from examining their patterns and fail to grow their collective intelligence.

Conversational habits are not something individuals are often skilled at noticing, particularly when they are IN the conversation, so having a team coach first identify these, in a non-judgmental way, can raise the consciousness of the group. 

As a team coach, I’ve observed common conversational habits that reduce team performance and effectiveness. Here are 10 that occur frequently. 

Top 10 common conversational habits that reduce team effectiveness:

Unclear conversational purpose or structure
A conversation begins without a shared understanding of the purpose. For instance, is this an open discussion or is there a decision that needs to be made? Is there a clear structure to make the decision? What do we want to leave with?

Dropped Call
Someone throws out an idea or comment and it doesn’t get ‘picked up’ by anyone in the conversation.

Conversational Litter
When someone says something serious or inflammatory but the team avoids or ignores it.

No one speaks up or follows up even though something is confusing or unclear. Often team members report that they assumed others thought it was clear or they didn’t want to slow down the meeting.

Lack of collective accountability
When the group doesn’t hold each other accountable to follow team norms or agreements.  Norms are what gets reinforced or ignored, not what you wrote down. Everyone on the team must have ownership for the health of the team as an organism, not just the leader.

Unclaimed victories
Not celebrating when the team should, for instance when they DID hold each other accountable or someone spoke up and took a risk. The team only celebrates ‘winning’ vs. the process and learning, or they omit these celebrations and new patterns don’t get reinforced.

Direct to Solution
Jumping to a solve without properly understanding the issue or unearthing assumptions.
The more uncertainty or discomfort, the faster the group moves towards solve mode.

Assumptions/Hiding in the ‘we’
Using language that ‘speaks for all of us’ without checking to see if that’s how others feel. Not recognizing the assumptions in your statements.

Conversation off-ramp
Someone brings up a new topic and the group goes down that path, even though they weren’t done with the current conversation. No one re-routes back or ‘closes’ the other conversation.

Vague agreements
Agreements that are unclear or lack enough specificity that it creates disappointment on both sides. One side believes there is a broken promise. The other side believes they fulfilled the agreement. In reality the original agreement was too vague and had embedded assumptions.

How the conversational habits reduce team effectiveness: 

  • They erode team trust.
  • They waste meeting time.
  • They create an environment where people don’t feel seen or heard.
  • They reduce capacity. 
  • They reduce people’s psychological safety to the point that they stop sharing their perspective. 
  • They make intellectual honesty more difficult, reducing innovation. 
  • They degrade progress on collective work.

How can teams improve conversational intelligence?

It starts with a foundation of psychological safety. Team members can self-assess with the following question: How safe do I and other team members feel to openly share thoughts without fear of negative consequences? 

  • Unsafe/somewhat unsafe
  • Neutral
  • Safe/very safe

For teams with a low-degree of psychological safety: Utilize a team coach. Our team coaching approach uses an iterative, facilitated process of noticing, experimenting, and practicing shared team ownership that amplifies safety for difficult conversations. Eventually, it allows the team to be their own coach by assessing their current patterns and course-correcting them in the moment. 

For teams with a medium-degree of psychological safety: Take a meeting inventory. At the end of every meeting, take an inventory. Ask the group: How did we do? Did we stay on topic? Was everyone’s voice heard? What, if anything, could we do differently next meeting for our conversation to be more effective? 

For teams with a high-degree of team psychological safety: Pause, Notice and Name. Review the list of conversational habits above, and pick one to work on. Practice pulling up mid-conversation and asking: “what do we notice about what’s happening right now?”  Name what’s being experienced and collectively make a choice about what happens next. 

Most teams need to build a stronger crucible that can hold the heat of productive conflict. This means an upgrade to their operating system. 

Individual intelligence is not synonymous with collective intelligence. In fact, sometimes it makes it worse. That’s why it takes practice. The payoffs include: high levels of trust, high degrees of team ownership and accountability, greater intellectual honesty, and a team-first orientation.

If you are tired of ineffective teamwork that leads to missed opportunities and stalled progress, it’s time to upgrade your team’s operating patterns and embrace the power of team coaching.




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