The Power of Data for Meaningful Conversations

Often times driving impactful change requires conversations that can be difficult, sensitive, or emotional. Throughout our experiences we have seen several instances where data was able to successfully guide meaningful discussion in such moments. The feedback we’ve received from such conversations have proved that data can be a great tool in not only opening up impactful discussions, but in leading them as well. Here are some of our learnings incase you too are interested in using data conversations to drive impact.

First a couple of recent examples…

A team was trying to drive a more customer centric culture in their organization. There were some sensitivities between various teams where they felt they had more ownership over the customer experience, or, where they thought they were already doing their part. This is an indicative trait of a more siloed organizational mindset and a sign for the team’s potential heightened emotional responses during discussions. After conducting a culture baseline assessment using representation from all the teams we were able to identify the sub cultures. More importantly, the perception leadership had was not reflective of how the teams felt of the organizational reality. Using the data, the perception gap was highlighted and brought to the forefront. This enabled leadership to have a more impactful conversation based in the reality of what the employees perceived and were experiencing.

In another example, we were supporting a development event for women in tech. The history of the confidence gap between men and women in tech is no secret, and we were there to support the growth of authentic confidence in women by providing the attendees a confidence evaluation, development workbooks tailored to their areas of opportunity, and providing collective data for use in a session. These topics can be tricky to navigate given peoples different experiences and perceptions. Sometimes, when one person demonstrates a clear ability to do something, and someone else doesn’t, it can be hard to see why the other person cannot just “do it”. Using the collective view of the attendee’s data built around their confidence we began to see patterns forming. For example, the women faced barriers such as, taking chances on opportunities, voicing their opinions at work, worrying about what people think, overcommitting to things for fear of letting people down, and believing in their worth, compared to men who were found to experience these barriers at a much lesser rate. Using the collective data in a workshop setting we were able to foster meaningful conversations between the men and women in attendance. In discussions, using the data as a guide, thoughts were raised on challenges of confidence equality, strategies to develop were shared, and understanding was gained in an impactful way.

How data can help drive the conversation

Data can bring many benefits to the conversation, some of which include:

Discovering commonalities: sharing collective data with groups allows people to forge a connection over common ground. It can help foster the feeling of “we are all in this together” and drive a collective accountability to support and help each other. We have found there is an advantage to finding commonalities through data as it offers an extra sense of validation or reassurance, a type of comfort not always easily found when interacting with people that you do not know well.

Leveraging strengths: using data to understand where a group or individual’s strengths lie can help the collective group grow and develop new skills or at least learn the best practices to do so. This can help you maximize the value of the collective skill-sets. Teaming up people that are experiencing barriers with those that are not can encourage the sharing of ideas in which everyone can experience growth.

Break down biases: We all have our own perspectives, patterns of thoughts, or beliefs, created from years upon years of experiences. It is easy for people to react to information with this narrow lens. Using data can help you break down some of these preconceived notions and assumptions, it can help you widen people’s perspectives, broaden their understanding, and open their mind to new possibilities. Data reveals underlying issues or factors that a tunneled vision may not pick up.

Desensitize emotional topics: Difficult topics can often garner emotional reactions. For example, a product not doing well can lead to some conflict or defensiveness between various functions. Or personal challenges can be hard to address in open settings. By using data, you can transform conversations into more productive mind-sets such as exploration, understanding, and growth-oriented solution finding. For example, rather than reacting with “that’s not true” and constructing a barrier around the idea, the use of data allows you to steer the conversation towards “why do you think this is” and “how can we overcome this or improve”. Gathered data allows conversations to take place on neutral grounds, one where topics and ideas can be facilitated without unintentional malice or aggression which allows critiques to be led with a focused goal of improvement.

Things to remember when using data to drive challenging conversations

While using data is incredibly powerful, data itself holds many nuances. We have found that:

Facilitation is key: The person steering the conversation plays a large role in the value and success that can be achieved. There is a skill in fostering an environment where people are comfortable to discuss things openly, where people can respond purposefully to the data, and ensuring that the conversation ends on a productive action. This can take a little planning. The facilitator needs to fully understand the data and what it means, as well as be prepared with some of the areas to dig into.

It works well to keep questions open: When driving conversations, it is key to find where the data resonates with the audience, and where they can provide value based on their experiences. For example, using open questions such as:

  • Why do you think this could be the case?
  • What examples do you have in which you have experienced this?
  • What are some of the ways in which you handle this?

Can enable people to be more comfortable with the data, as opposed to telling them what they may or may not think. Basically, you want to use the data, but enable them to foster their own connection to it. This needs patience, as even though you know the outcome or meaning, you need to let people take their own thought journey there – this is where the questions can help.

It must be clear that the data is valid and authoritative: Duh – but you will be shocked how many people still use the wrong data for the wrong audience. The data should of course be valid, but often times you will need to take a moment to explain how it was captured and what gives it any form of authority. This can help because when people have a defensive reaction, or the topic causes difficult emotions, their mind can be in a narrower effect where they will notice little things to explain away what they do not like. You may see things like nit-picking, or, disbelief in the validity of the data. If you make sure they understand why the data is valid, it can help mitigate this and make them feel more comfortable with it.

Use visuals: This can help the point stay front and center during the discussion. It can also help people more easily digest data around complex topics or vast data sets.

In summary

If you are planning to bring the use of data into your conversations, make sure that:

  • You understand the data, how it is valid, and are equipped to provide context to the participants.
  • You are prepared to make sure that everyone feels comfortable with the data and foster an environment in which everyone is open to hearing each other's thoughts.
  • You are ready to drive the conversation through the challenging moments that arise.
  • You are ready to answer questions that arise.
  • After discussions, you bring the audience to agreed upon, defined, and committed actions - individual and/or as a collective, depending on the nature of your conversation.
  • You have planned follow up to continue the momentum as a part of your larger strategy and goals.
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