Conversations at work are a tricky prospect: On the one hand, they involve regular interactions with people we (mostly) know, talking about subjects we ought to be familiar with.
Then why do we cringe at the thought of them?
If you reflect, there have probably been at least a few conversations where no one listened (or cared) about your views; there was a lack of consensus, and no meaningful action was taken; or the conversation felt repetitive, and an inertia set in.
Conversely, there have been some great conversations too: with full alignment, problem-solving and successful planning. In short, we got the job done together, as a team.
Let’s figure out a few simple steps to make more of your work conversations great.
1. Listen to Understand
The greatest misconception about good communication is that it’s about speaking well.
Listening comes first. The best communicators listen twice as much as they speak—that’s what helps them understand the problem to begin with. Usually, the problem is about a small detail that “talking out” can miss because we’re so focused on speech efficiency that we don’t even know what the root cause might be. What makes matters worse is when it’s not about an objective point at all, but rather about the other person feeling lack of trust, inclusion or concern from our side.
That’s when listening with intent to understand before we speak rebuilds the trust. This engages the audience and includes them in the problem-solving process.
2. Ask Questions to Carify
Listening gives us the data we need to begin the conversation; the best listening is aided by insightful questions that show we’re actually paying attention and trying to get to the bottom of it.
Good questions spur critical thinking in both speakers and listeners, forcing speakers to find a frame of conversation that works to simplify matters, and causing listeners to make their information fit the necessary frame. And we may find answers that wouldn’t have even occurred to us in unstructured conversation.
There are many types of questions, of course, and some great strategies on how to combine them.
3. Share Perspective to Align
If all we did was listen, we’d build a lot of trust, to be sure, but we wouldn’t achieve our goals. So finally, we complete our listening as well as understanding, then move to share our views—not as a matter of right or wrong, but as a way to make a reasoned argument based on our own concerns, priorities, and needs. This gives the other a chance to compare notes and perhaps learn that other priorities exist outside his or her own.
In this process, it’s essential we start to make a move towards alignment. Ask the other for feedback on your views: What is the gap between perspectives? Why so? What would it take to move closer on some items? That’s when we start looking at priorities.
4. Decide Priorities Together
All other things being equal, we tend to work with mostly rational, reasonable people (if not, I commiserate). Priorities, however, can be a common source of misalignment’s—our individual or team agendas are different, and so are the pressures we are under.
Time and resources are limited, and we need to achieve some goals on each person’s list for a sense of achievement and progress.
That’s where we make a structured scoring plan around priorities: time, return on investment, interconnectedness to other goals, strategic value and more.
With clarity on priorities, we can finally discuss the final step: action.
5. Plan Collective Action
If we’ve done the spadework up to this point, we have built trust through good listening, and analyzed the problem thoroughly through strategic questions. With sufficient sharing of perspectives and priorities, we have made strides towards alignment too, so everyone is on the same page.
That brings us to action—the most critical part of your work conversation.
Each person agrees on goals, more importantly on the actions to be taken to achieve them.
We decide timelines, deadlines, and measurability for each goal or action and a follow-up method for accountability.
At the end of the conversation, if everyone’s needs are met, and all team members know what needs to be done and have moderate-to-high confidence of success, we have just had a great work conversation.