THE BLOG

Leader, Take a Walk for a Difficult Talk

02/18/2015 03:39 pm ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015

Walking loosens the tongue. Think back to your childhood. Do you remember any long walks with grandparents, aunts, or uncles when you bonded as you bounded through the neighborhood or countryside?

Or about those long, romantic walks with your first love when you poured out your deepest secrets and highest hopes for the future? Or how about those strolls through the hallways at school with your best friend, sharing what you were going to do on the weekend?

Walking and talking go together like leadership and development. How so?

Walking offers privacy and security. When military leaders want to ensure privacy, they ask someone spontaneously to walk and talk--away from bugged rooms or recording devices. An employee who may be hesitant to give an opinion, discuss a sensitive issue, or provide feedback when there's a chance people nearby might overhear feels freer to talk as you walk privately across campus.

Walking with someone represents time--proof that people are important to you. After all, walking gets you from Point A to Point B. You have a choice of how you travel. But the fact that you invite Greg or Janine to Building A with you while you check on X says, "I'd like to spend some uninterrupted time with you."

Walking provides gap-fillers. For those team members or peers who're introverts and hate the thought of small-talk, walking provides an endless stream of topics: the scenery, passers-by, the destination, tasks you left behind. And silences seem comfortable as well.

Walking puts you on equal footing. Sitting in someone's office always reminds you of hierarchy--of who's boss, where the lines of authority are between peers, and what the ramifications might be after stating opinions. But when walking, the physical reminders are stripped away. Of course, no one expects both parties to suddenly have amnesia. But on the walk, the relationship often takes the same turn as that between salesperson and client in the sports stadium--or the two colleagues at an office party. Relaxed, open, friendly, unguarded.

Walking lessens the chance for eye contact. When you're walking, for the most part, you're looking straight ahead, not face to face. If you want an opinion or feedback on a sensitive issue, it's often easier for the other person to give you an honest answer without the pressure of your gaze. It's almost as if they feel they're talking "into the air" anonymously.

Walking works off emotional steam without anyone noticing. When either you or the other person hears something shocking--or you get into a heated exchange with a peer--the exercise itself provides "cover" for your emotional distress (faster breathing, jerky movements, grimacing facial expression, faster pace, and so forth) until you recover your composure.

I've played enough basketball and watched enough football and baseball in my lifetime to know that when a player gets hurts, the coaches frequently yell, "Just walk it off. You'll be fine. Just walk it off!"

Maybe Tom Peters was onto something back in the early 1980s when he popularized the concept "management by walking around." (Although, others have traced this concept all the way back to Abraham Lincoln's management style of informally visiting the Union troops during the American civil war.) We might call the next phase in our organizations "leadership by getting others to walk around."

If there's a perplexing management or communication issue to deal with, consider "walking it off." If there's a relationship that you need to deepen, can you simply "walk it forward"?