Paved with good intentions

Most leadership is enacted through the medium of conversation – whether meetings, presentations or one-to-ones. Yet many of us don’t pay attention to the ‘how’ of our conversations – we focus on the ‘what’. We don’t consider how we’ll create the conditions for exchanges that generate both good outcomes and greater rapport and confidence amongst those present.

Sometimes this doesn’t matter. And sometimes we go into a room intending to be collaborative and constructive, yet quickly become resistant, frustrated, uneasy or defensive. We explode (or implode) and the conversation becomes strained and edgy. In the words of an old proverb, our good intentions have paved the road to hell!

Why does this happen?

The reasons are situational and nuanced. Many things affect how we show up in a particular setting, from the kind of day we’ve had to our history with the people we’re meeting. The way the conversation has been set up is also likely to be a factor, but may be something we can do little about.

What we can influence, even if we expect to walk into a hostile and combative environment, is the way we carry ourselves and the energy we bring to our interactions. Our demeanour and presence materially impact what unfolds, yet we don’t often take this into account.

To get a sense of what I mean, consider a situation that represents mild adversity for you, such as dealing with a difficult issue/person or being in a conversation that feels like a threat to your aspirations, values or reputation. In such circumstances, the body takes charge. Fight/flight chemicals begin to course through our system and we become ‘jammed’. Our ability to act or speak skilfully is reduced, if not entirely compromised. We’re at the mercy of our survival system, a physiological legacy of the eat-or-be-eaten days of our early ancestors.

For example, when I approach a conversation that’s crucial, either personally or professionally, I’ll already be in a state of heightened alert. If I harness this energy, it can be of benefit – I take more care to clarify my purpose and the wee boost of adrenalin may mean I handle whatever is thrown at me with aplomb.

However, if the stakes are high for others as well as for me, everyone will be on alert, creating a collective tension and watchfulness that isn’t located in any single person. Without awareness, my body will respond to this energy by becoming even more ready to protect itself.

This embodied mechanism of preparing for uncertainties and potential hazards shows up differently in each of us. In my case, I tend tighten and hold myself more rigidly. I ‘hunker down’ and become more combative or defensive. I’m in survival mode, without access to warmth, humour, generosity. Caught up in personal preoccupations, I listen less. I’m quick to judge, ridicule, dismiss. Things don’t go well from here – unless I change my state, the way I’m carrying myself.

The trouble with good intentions is that located in the mind, whilst the root of reactivity/survival lies in the body. To make good on our intentions, we must be able to embody them, even when the chips are down.

A first step towards this is to become familiar with the physical early warnings that compromise our capacity to act well. There’s usually a pattern – a habit of defence, protection or resistance that has become embedded over the years. Once we learn how to spot the early signs, we can regroup, settle our physiology and gather our wits. Exhaling, we can reconnect with what matters. Regaining perspective, we can focus on the horizon and possibilities.


    • Reflecting on high stakes conversations where you’ve not been at your best, what do you notice about your presence and demeanour? What happens in your body, mind and spirit? What tends to play out?
    • There are many approaches for settling yourself and accessing greater perspective – what do you find works for you? What helps you to put it into practice when the chips are down?
Written in September 2019