12 min read


From Critical to Empowering Conversations: let’s change the world using the C-FACTOR.

The way to master conversational leadership goes through humble and consistent practice, developing self-awareness and confidence. It’s easier than you think to grow better leaders in your organization.

Andrea Laus  



Unless the leaders inside your organization live in a vacuum, they need to communicate with their employees. At all levels, on many subjects and for several reasons. Every day.

Taking decisions implies communicating and sharing those decisions. Leading by example means being an example of clear, transparent and effective communication too. Managing a team requires settling disputes, encouraging, motivating and listening to all members.

It’s a busy job, and delicate too.

Of course, communication goes through conversations. Which is a very specific type of communication, very intimate, usually one to one, and quite often on subjects where emotions come up and where the road to the stake does not necessarily go through aligned points of view at the beginning of the journey.

That’s probably why we commonly refer to those situations as “critical” or “crucial” conversations, referring to the fact, somehow, that they are definitely not easy to manage.

We believe that is one of the reasons so many Leaders fail in conducting successful conversations: we start the wrong way since the beginning, considering those conversation as difficult and this too often leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What follows is quite easy to imagine: we tend to avoid as much as possible those conversation and, doing this, we shrink our comfort zone to the point where we consider those moments as really uncomfortable.

As a final result, also our self-awareness about how we can actually perform in those situations suffers.

Unless the leaders inside your organization live in a vacuum, they need to communicate with their employees. At all levels, on many subjects and for several reasons. Every day.

Keep the focus on what really matters

When you consider that conversations are the moment when potential turns into collective energy, the 20% factor of a leader that makes the 80% of the difference in team results, the question becomes: how can we work out a better way to deal with conversations?

Here at SkillGym we call it the C-Factor. The specific skill and attitude that highly performing Leaders show when it’s about dealing with critical conversations and turning them into genuine empowering moments.

How do they do? Is there any secret to be unveiled? Is there a way to scale up their way, their attitude, their skills so that everyone in the organization can contribute to generating energy through empowering conversations?

Over the years we met many organizations and, within them, so many leaders and their employees. Our researches done during the development of the SkillGym methodology took us to the following, encouraging, conclusions:

  • It’s more or less the same everywhere: humans tend to stay in their comfort zone and confrontation is most of the time perceived as something outside of it;
  • On the contrary, employees almost always claim that they would prefer to have more frequent, transparent conversations with their bosses rather than less;
  • Even more: many employees recognize “leadership” in the conversation moments. When they get motivated and driven
  • The best performing Leaders are almost always also those who strive to excel in transparency and commitment to communication with their employees;
  • We met very few Leaders who were just “naturally” gifted by the ability to manage critical conversations; the vast majority was struggling against their own instinct trying do better and better every day in this field.

This last point is particularly interesting. Really, there is no secret formula to excel in conversations. Those who succeed achieve their results pushing forward every day.

You meet very few Leaders out there who are just “naturally” gifted by the ability to manage critical conversations; the vast majority struggles against their own instinct trying do better and better every day.

Practice, practice, practice

Of course there are some best practices to follow (several interesting books are available on the subject, look here if you are interested) and certainly taking a course on communication skills makes sense, especially at the beginning of the career, to orientate one own’s efforts.

But in the end, it’s mostly about practice. The more you practice, the more you gain confidence and raise your self-awareness. Your comfort zone starts to enlarge as soon as you move the first step toward trying and trying again.

That’s the point. Talent is overrated, and fear of confrontation has to be fought by practicing.

It’s not easy as it sounds, of course, but it’s worth, given the impact a great conversation can have on the employees’ and team’s energy.

We have studied hundreds of Leaders who made their way through this challenge to see what they would consider the enabling factors they consistently worked on to improve on conversation skills. Overtime, we have identified 4 recurring ingredients that can help increasing the C-Factor of a leader (by the way, you can name the “C” as you want: Communication, Conversation, Courage, Confidence, Continuity of practice…)

One of the reasons so many Leaders fail in conducting successful conversations: they start the wrong way since the beginning, considering those conversation as difficult. This too often leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

1. Try. It seems obvious, but most of the times what hold us from succeeding is just the fact that we are scared about the (potentially negative?) outcome. This ingredient does not apply only to critical conversations in business, of course. But it’s worth reminding that the first step we always should take to start is… a first step. In practice. Nothing to add here.

2. Have a work-out plan. I mean… trying, alone, won’t take you far. To improve you need to get organized. This point can be developed in several ways. Let’s stay short with:

a. Identify the conversations that matter most. You can’t be great in all disciplines. At least at the beginning, so focus is paramount. Also, don’t forget the golden 80/20 rule. 20% of the conversations (types of conversations, by the way) make the 80% of the impact. Focus on few, key types of conversation and make your way to mastery.

b. Identify at least two key metrics you want to improve. All the best performing leaders we talked to agreed that it’s much harder to improve something you do not measure. Again, there are a lot of possible metrics, maybe too many. The two most efficient to measure, in our experience, are: confidence and self-awareness. Not so easy to measure, but very powerful in a development path. See below some more details about the two

c. Seek for unbiased feedback. There is nothing as accelerating improvements as receiving feedback. Unfortunately, it’s not easy. Again, we are poor feedback givers (since we don’t link too much exposure) and even poorer feedback seekers. But it’s the one single factor of a practice program that provides the highest impact

d. Schedule conversations in advance and do it consistently. We are hard wired with our calendar. Whatever goes in the calendar normally gets done. Push yourself to scheduling also the most uncomfortable conversations. It won’t be easy at the beginning, but you’ll get used to is soon.

3. Look for help. Executive coaching is an excellent way to support conversational skills. Role Plays are a great learning strategy. Peers can help too (reciprocally). The emerging world of Digital Role Plays is one of the best allies you can rely on (Skillgym is a great example, but give a look at this article if you want to learn more about Digital Role Plays as a category of digital learning tools)

4. Don’t settle. Apart from riding a bicycle, all other skills require maintenance. The one thing you should not do: think that at one certain point it’s done. It’s never really done. There is always room for improvement and you need to care about maintaining over time the acquired skills. So, keep on practicing, whatever happens.

Apart from riding a bicycle, all other skills require maintenance. The one thing you should not do: think that at one certain point it’s done. It’s never really done.

Evidences are in numbers

We have been reasoning on this list since many years. And every day we continue to witness that this list does not changes. I mean, leaders come and go but these principles do never go out of fashion. It’s always about struggling against the instinct of fearing confrontation, whilst practicing for improving and measuring to change.

We have built our SkillGym methodologies following these principles, and we helped hundreds of thousands of leaders around the world, easing their practicing schedule on critical conversations. We have a LOT of data supporting these principles and we like to check them frequently to look at new evidences. Let’s give a look together.

(all the following data come fresh from our database listing over 250k users, with 10k+ simulated interviews played every day).

Here is a first interesting fact. The two groups are made of leaders of the same age and same seniority.

Group 1 went through an intensive “traditional” course on leadership communication skills just before entering SkillGym. Group 1 just entered SkillGym with no specific courses done in the previous 12 months. The graphic below shows the Confidence (*) as recorded on their first simulated interview. Basically, the same.


Of course, this does not mean that traditional courses are uninfluential, however, look at the next graph:


Here we have compared again two different groups (same age, same seniority).

Both took an assessment on a Critical Conversation in SkillGym. Then Group 1 did not do any practicing and, instead, Group 2 went for a Digital Fitness program on SkillGym for around 6 months. Then we asked Group 1 to take the test again.

See the point? Clearly, practicing goes a long way and almost always overcome bare knowledge.

(*) by the way, we define “Confidence” as the skill of feeling comfortable with a situation, in this case a critical conversation. In more technical terms, Confidence measures how the leader is capable to manage the conversation to make the best of it in terms of matching its core objectives. More in this article if you are interested in reading further.

Let’s dig deeper. We have compared the Self-Awareness (*) dynamics of two groups of leaders simulating several types of critical conversations.


Interestingly, the youngest (or “less experienced”?!?), Group 1, scored consistently higher than their “experienced” and certainly more senior peers, Group 2. Does it ring any bell? We hear all the times things like “training it’s not for me, I have my way, I know what to do” from part of the senior management.

(*) We measure Self-Awareness as the gap between the evaluation of the performance in the conversation provided by SkillGym and the self-evaluation collected from the leader at the end of the conversation. The larger the gap, the lower the Self-Awareness.

Let’s go ahead. Here you can see what happens when leaders practice consistently on critical conversations, but then stop.


This group was trained for 5 months and then stopped for 6 months, before doing another conversation, as shown. Clearly our skills, the Confidence in this particular example, is subject to a certain degree of “evaporation” and requires consistent maintenance.

Some of our clients are so kind to provide us on a regular basis with real-world aggregated (thus anonymous) data from leaders that are taking our Digital Fitness program. Two aspect appears quite interesting:

  • Those who consistently follow their schedule of training tend to schedule more and more critical conversation in their real-life calendar too.
  • Their employees regularly report signs of appreciation for a “better quality of communication within the team”

You can change the world

What does all this can mean? To me, it clearly shows that:

  • Practicing is much more important than just storing knowledge
  • Seniority does not necessarily mean better performance in communication
  • Communication skills need to be maintained over time with consistent training
  • (let me add) a great training tool can make a big difference 😉
  • When conversations work well, the team work well, the performance increases and everyone is more happy
  • Leaders can really change the world, developing their C-Factor

Now, let’s take some conclusions from where we left. The recipe for developing the C-Factor looks clear. But how can you, as HR and L&D professional help your leaders to go that way?

In my experience, those who really implemented a sustainable and effective long-term strategy for supporting the C-Factor went through 3 steps:

1. Rebalance their programs, giving more importance to practicing over knowledge storing. Knowledge is everywhere nowadays, and leaders hate getting stuffed with information. Let them practice, let them make mistakes in a safe environment

2. Think long-term. Reduce the “pit-stop” approach (2 days courses, 2 times per year and then go and perform) and replace it with a consistent program of continuous practical exercises. It can be delivered in any form, but please start considering skill development as a sport. Would you imagine Roger Federer going to a class a couple of days every now and then and nothing else? How could he possibly compete with the champions?

3. Consider technology. Conversation is a role play. No doubt about that. That’s why role playing is the most suitable learning strategy to practice conversations. Digital Role Play can let you scale (which is what you need if you want to plan long-term) both on numbers (of leaders you can involve) and consistency over time.

At this point, you may want to dig deeper on the subject of Digital Role Plays and the benefits you can get adopting one solution like this.

Here you can find an article describing in detail what Digital Role Play are, how they work and what you can achieve with this type of solution.

Here you can watch some interesting webinar just released showing interesting case histories of what happens when you blend Digital Role Plays into your learning strategy.

Thanks for reading!

Develop leadership through better conversations, discover SkillGym!

Andrea Laus  

Andrea has 20 years experience in the industry of digital learning. Since over 10 years now he designs and develop interactive simulations featuring video and AI to bring immersive and authentic digital experiences to leadership coaches worldwide.

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