How to Have a Real Conversation at Work

watch-icon August 17, 2021

How to Have a Real Conversation at Work

Having meaningful and authentic conversations at work is a topic that comes up a lot when talking with organisational leaders (you may call them ‘tough conversations’).

Over the last 12 months, I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve given the same advice and asked the same questions to leaders and teams. Constantly walking down the same pathway of advice has led me to think that there’s something broken in our society and our ability to have a conversation.

If I was to put a number to it – 90% of the work that we do is a result of real conversation not happening in organisations.

Before we go on, let’s address the pink elephant in the room…

Sending a bucket load of emails and having an intranet isn’t conversation… it’s barely communication. Even the monthly “Town Hall” that you are so proud of… isn’t a conversation. Its information… still important, but not the centre of this blog. Ok, let’s move on…

Data and information flow is high in organisations, but conversation and dialogue are low.

Let me give you an understanding of what I mean by conversation versus information. The truth is, there is a lot of information that is circulated within organizations, probably too much. We get an abundance of emails, we are sent to lengthy posts on internal intranet sites, employee newsletters hit our inboxes, and the meetings…good God all the meetings…, and the annual/bi-annual Town Hall or Executive Update. You know the one, the CEO or senior executive stands in front of us and speaks for an hour or more about what’s happening in the organisation, and we may or may not get an opportunity to ask a carefully worded question. Maybe anonymously by a ‘suggestion box’, or on Zoom through the chat function, or by raising our hand like in year 4 and standing in front of all of our colleagues who are staring at us wishing we’d just shut up so they can get out of here and go ‘do some work’.

Change happens in the conversation.

How many of you reading this, have had that moment where you are talking to someone and the penny drops, an epiphany happens?  How many times have you been listening to someone recall their story and gotten insight into your own story? This happens daily, if not moment by moment across organisations, and relationships.

Change happens in a conversation. A Conversation cannot be held by email. It cannot be held by an intranet page or a well crafted and beautifully designed newsletter. A Conversation won’t be had at a town hall meeting. A conversation occurs between two sometimes three or four individuals. It provides you with an opportunity to learn something relevant to you. It gives you the opportunity to test presumptions and theories.

But also, because the conversation is individualised, it will leave you feeling more fulfilled or more frustrated. It will spark emotions. Excitement, curiosity, anger, joy, fear…Unfortunately, most information flow, town halls, emails, intranet pages and other forms of passive communication at work generally leave you without emotion…other than perhaps a sense of feeling disappointed or impatient.

Why is emotion important in communication?

When we’re talking about information flow? If I’m just telling you that a new software system is being introduced into the organisation, why do I care if you feel emotion or not? Well, here’s the trick. Your brain responds to things that it thinks is important to you. The biggest clue that it’s important to you, is the emotion you feel as a result of something. Emotion helps code memory. This is an important thing to understand. You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to understand this part. All you need to understand is emotion helps code memory, and memory is what we draw on to decide whether the information is important to us or not.

The more emotion that is associated with an action, or a statement, the more it gets coded in our brains. If we have a heightened sense of happiness, fear, sadness or anger in a situation, these are the memories that stay strong with us.

Think about the worst or the best thing that’s happened to you. I suspect you can recall it like watching a movie on Netflix, the colour, the smells, the looks on the faces, the scenery around you in vivid detail because that memory has such a strong connection. Now recall the 7th email you read yesterday…crickets huh? 

Why is this important in organizations?  

Because we have an expectation when we’re sending out information in organizations, that our people will retain that information and do something with it. Otherwise, why are we sending the information out?   

For people to retain the information and do something with it, we need to be clear with them that it’s important to them. Now, I’m not suggesting that when you send out your next email, you create an amazing story within that email that tugs at the heartstrings of the individual reading it. This is what marketers do. This is what ad companies do to get you to buy products. It is a great technique for being able to code information into the human psyche. However, it’s disingenuous.

What can we do instead?

What I want is for you is to be an authentic leader, I want you to think about how you like to explore information, the way you like to question, challenge.  I want you as an authentic leader, to create an environment in which your people can do that also.

Dialogue is two way. Information is one way.

One way information will not get you the results that you’re hoping to achieve. Dialogue and conversation will take more time than a quick email. You may have to have a conversation that at times feels uncomfortable and be difficult.

But suck it up princess cus that’s the gig…

The reality is if you don’t spend the time having these conversations, if you don’t spend the time, engaging with your people, and listening to their challenges, listening to their fears, listening to their feelings, then you will spend much more time, later on, cleaning up the mess that’s caused as a result of lack of conversation. If people don’t get a chance to understand or challenge at the beginning they certainly will towards the end, and probably derail your project launch plans. The conversation is so important in change projects, and still more important in your day to day activities.

If you want to be an authentic leader, who engages people, then you will need to spend the time, energy, effort and even sometimes money to make sure that you have good dialogue and conversation with your people. Now, when I talk about money, I’m talking about $5 for a coffee… go for a coffee together, sit in a comfortable spot in the office, chat in the hallway, or go for a walk around the block together. Walking side by side is great for allowing people to open up. I don’t know the science behind it. I just know my experience with it. I know that when I have a walking conversation with someone, I am able to open up more to that person and they can open up to me.  I’m sure someone reading this can help us with the science of it.

Change happens in the conversation.

I encourage you as an authentic leader, to put time into creating the space for conversation with your people.  Create an environment where they can have meaningful conversations with each other. I honestly believe that if we did more of this in organisations, we would have improved culture, behaviour, and performance. Increase the quality of our conversations at work and we could probably change the world.

If you are struggling to have real, authentic and meaningful conversations at work or you want some tips on how to create an environment where meaningful conversation can happen get in touch with us at Synergy IQ. We put people at the heart of everything we do and we’re here to help.

Michelle Holland