How to have better conversations at work

25 Sept 2018

What we say and how we say it affects the culture at work. I recently went to collect an order at a furnishing store and the staff could not find it. When the manager came over to apologise, he said: ‘I don’t know what’s happened. Maybe one of my staff has done something they shouldn’t, and I need to slap them.’

I don’t think he meant it literally, but the image of management by ‘slapping’ was enough to tell me why the store seemed an unhappy and inefficient place. Delivering a verbal slap would be sure to shut off the recipient’s cooperation. It would send their brain into ‘fight, flight, freeze or appease’ mode, and the willingness to learn and do the job better next time would be lost. 

The metaphorical slap is a familiar part of working life, and its consequences are significant. How would you feel if your boss shot down your idea in public and told you to ‘leave it to the pros’, as happened to someone I know? Or you delivered a project on which you’d been slaving for weeks, only to be told: ‘I’d expected more of you than this’?

You would probably feel shocked, angry, and belittled. You might ask yourself how much you wanted to contribute in future, and perhaps even if you wanted to stay in a company where people were treated like that. Multiplied across an organisation, a culture of negative conversations can suppress a raft of good ideas and prevent people from reaching their potential – to the detriment of business performance.

Helping leaders to develop language that engages and motivates people is at the core of a programme I’m undertaking called Conversational Intelligence® for Coaches, led by Judith Glaser, a US author, academic and organisational anthropologist. Drawing extensively on neuroscience, she shows how ‘C-IQ’ builds healthier relationships and more successful companies.

Some people put a higher priority on getting tasks done than on nurturing relationships, especially when they are under pressure. In her book, Conversational Intelligence, Judith describes working with a very driven executive who was convinced that being a good leader required him to tell his people what to do and micromanage their progress.

In his eyes, they were never good enough, so he pushed them even harder. He fell into the trap of ‘Tell, Sell, Yell’. His intentions were good – developing people to be the best – but his conviction that he was right, and his inability to listen, left them frightened and demoralised.

The breakthrough came when he agreed to try something new with his team: ask their opinions. This had a hugely positive impact, as it had never happened before. Soon he was learning to discover and collaborate. Judith relates how, the following year, he became the top-rated leader of the CEO’s direct reports.

So what kind of questions encourage people to share ideas, build trust, and work together, even when relationships are difficult? Open questions to which you do not have the answer. They allow unseen and unimagined possibilities to emerge. Asking for help is good, too, as it demonstrates belief in the other person, who is then likely to be more willing to contribute.

Here are some statements that shut people down:

  • ‘You don’t have the experience’
  • ‘There’s no way that will work’
  • ‘I was wrong to think you could do it’
  • ‘I want to know who’s responsible for this mess’

And here are some questions to build trust and collaboration:

  • ‘What insights would you like to share?’
  • ‘How would you handle this?’
  • ‘How can I support you better?’
  • ‘How could we do this better together?

Asking questions like these takes more time and effort, but it’s worth it because the prize for people and organisations of learning to do this well is great.

Here are some further ideas to make conversations more productive:

  • If you’re on the receiving end of a put-down, take a deep breath and give yourself a moment before reacting. This can help you to overcome ‘fight, flight, freeze or appease’ mode and respond more calmly.
  • If you’re struggling with a relationship, tell the other person you would like to talk about it. Invite them to share any threats or fears they think are preventing you from trusting each other – and share yours. Being open requires courage, but it can help to clear the air, especially if the difficulty is based on false assumptions or misunderstandings.
  • Try not to go into a conversation or meeting determined to ‘win’. Being open to what others say can lead to better solutions, co-created by a mix of people with different ideas.

This article is an edited version of a column published by IWE on 9 September 2018.

©Alison Maitland 2018, all rights reserved.

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