Start of page content

The power of great conversations

CategoryManager Tips

What do organisations and employees have to gain from great workplace conversations? In this guest blog David North identifies the benefits – and the barriers – and sets out six ways we can strengthen conversations at work.

A deep connection

I love listening to the radio. Whether it’s Desert Island Discs, a Mark Kermode film review or The Danny Baker show, there’s something special and very personal about this medium.  Last week I heard an interview on the BBC Today programme with Wendy Mitchell who has just written a memoir…‘Somebody I Used to Know’…about her life since being diagnosed with early-onset dementia. The interviewer did a wonderful job in sensitively coaxing Wendy to share her story. Their 10 minute conversation was both highly informative and deeply moving

It’s this potential for a very human connection that makes me so disheartened when I hear many broadcasters asking leading questions, making assumptions about their guest’s experiences, or constantly interjecting with their own stories. In my frustration it’s not unusual for me to yell at the radio… ‘Let them speak!’ or ‘It’s not about you!’

We need these conversations at work too

I firmly believe our offices and factories would be happier, more creative and productive places if great conversations happened regularly there too.  In this context the interviewer’s role is played by the manager, and most often by the front line leader. In essence, their task is to achieve great results by really listening to, understanding and helping their people to be the best they can be.

But there’s a problem. Just as the broadcaster has to speed up the interview because the weather forecast or travel update is waiting, managers are often too busy ticking things off lists to really listen and give great attention to their people. As a result important conversations are postponed, or never happen at all.

Just as important, many managers lack the basic skills and self-awareness to lead great conversations; conversations where people talk about what really matters to them. Sensing this, team members often decide not to raise important issues with their bosses. The consultancy Career Innovation calls this phenomenon ‘The Conversation Gap’.

Closing the conversation gap

If you’re a leader, or parent for that matter, here are some things to help you bridge this conversation gap:

1. Be present in the conversation

Whilst the discussion might have been initiated by you, it is really the other person’s agenda that is most important.  People will tell you what matters to them, and generate ideas, if you give them great attention. And they’ll know when you’re not doing this.

If you need to have an important conversation with a team member, put aside distracting thoughts like the recent argument you had with your partner, or what you’re going to have for dinner that evening. As author Celeste Headlee¹ says:

‘If you want to get out of the conversation, get out of the conversation, but don’t be half in it and half out of it’.

2. Listen

The most fundamental skill of all good conversations is the ability to listen. It’s the hardest thing to do, but it’s also the most important.

Remember, in a great conversation you’re listening to understand, to empathise and to learn…not to rehearse what you’re going to say next.

3. Hold back

It’s not a great conversation if all you’re doing is telling the other person your opinion. Your role is to give your team member or colleague time to clarify and express what they think and feel, and to generate their own solutions to the challenges they face at work.

It’s their moment to shine, not the time for you to prove how knowledgeable you are.

4. Give them space

We’re all familiar with the situation where someone is talking and it makes us think of a great idea or story which we just have to share. Rather than continuing to listen, we’re impatiently waiting for the person to pause so we can jump in.

Notice if you’re about to fall into this trap. Instead, give great attention, listen, and hold back.

5. Use open-ended questions

Ask simple, open questions in order to ignite the other person’s thinking and deepen your insight.

Prompt them to use their own words to describe the things they want to talk about. They’re the ones that know, and you’re likely to get a much more interesting response this way.

Ask things like, ‘What was that like?’, ‘Who else cares about this?’, or ‘How could we improve things?’ These questions engage and empower people.

6. Find ways to prompt great conversations

Don’t just wait for people to come to you. Make yourself available, and create opportunities for great conversations to happen.

Wander around, notice subtle changes in people’s moods and behaviour.  Ask colleagues how they’re doing, pay attention to their answers and ask a follow-up question if what they’re saying and how they’re looking doesn’t match up.

Important work for each of us

This quote from Liz Ellis, HR Director at Danone UK and Ireland, perfectly summarises why great conversations are important and so difficult to find time for.

‘It seems like an obvious truth that, to really understand what matters to your staff, you have to have a continuous dialogue, ask questions and be prepared to really listen to the answers. This is a simple insight, but it can get lost in the busyness of everyday life’. ²

Am I doing all of these things, all of the time? Certainly not, but I’m continually working on it. After all, self-awareness is an important first step on the road to improvement.

So, I’ll end with two questions for you:

  • What do you need to do differently to have great workplace conversations? and
  • Which of your team members or colleagues would benefit from a good listening to? 



¹ Celeste Headlee, ’10 ways to have a better conversation’, TED talk,  April 2015

² ‘Is anybody actually listening?’, CIPD People Management magazine article, February 2018.

Innovation in your inbox

Keep up to date with our latest news and receive updates of future events.