Too often in the workplace, we see conversations as a means to an end. Employees only approach managers when they need something and vice versa. This past year exacerbated the lack of spontaneous conversation. Transitioning to an all-virtual work environment deprived employees of serendipitous encounters: bumping into a colleague in the elevator, chatting while waiting to use the microwave, or even lingering in the conference room after a meeting.
But what if we intentionally created spaces for our teams to engage in conversation? And not business-or operations-related conversations about quarterly goals or current projects but about topics propelling us to live, work and rise from bed every morning? What if we had the opportunity at work to explore topics like social injustice, mental health and civic responsibility? Many people are passionate about such topics, yet we don’t prioritize nor invest time encouraging coworkers to share in each others’ passions and beliefs. To build trust, empathy and transparent communication, we need meaningful conversations designed to spark and nurture change.
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Conversation design involves creating the space to host intentional conversations. By connecting over shared experiences and common goals, intentional conversations help leaders address complex topics, establish values, foster inclusivity and inspire action among teams. Professional conversation designers help teams facilitate and create conversations with a lasting effect on their work relationships.
The following tips help proactively design meaningful conversations in the workplace:
The most vital element to include in a controversial or divisive conversation? Empathy. This silver bullet ensures your team walks away with bridges built, not burnt. But empathy doesn’t always come naturally, especially when discussing topics about which we feel especially passionate.
Fostering it starts by understanding various viewpoints and feelings about a particular topic. Consider assigning some short preliminary work about the topic before your team enters the conversation. Using a survey tool like SurveyMonkey assesses participant beliefs and preconceived notions, for example, and provides a clearer sense of everyone’s position to help structure questions and ideas to explore.
Send resources such as news articles or academic studies to help set a benchmark for the discussion. Providing background information helps to level the playing field and ease concerns of some participants who may feel less equipped to discuss certain topics. Facts and stats give everyone access to the same starting point and create equal footing.
Partner with your platform
Our work lives grant us little escape from the necessity of virtual and hybrid meetings. The billion-dollar voice technology and video conference platform markets offer organizations a myriad of options. However, as much as we’ve adjusted to these virtual meetings, they tend to hamper conversations — especially about difficult topics — which evolved more naturally in person.
When creating a virtual conversation, do so with intention. Strategize how best to use an engagement platform to foster a comfortable and engaging space. While the conversation naturally changes based on people’s current interests or convictions, develop an agenda. Agendas allow all participants to see the conversation’s general shape and direction. Most people expect meetings to include agendas, and using one provides a level of comfort and familiarity — an important consideration for anyone hesitant about a new experience. Even should you diverge from the original agenda, it helps everyone feel aligned.
When hosting conversations with a group, utilize all of a software’s available features, like breakout rooms, screen sharing and feedback surveys. On Zoom, for example, displaying the meeting duration in the corner ensures equitable time for each person to share their thoughts and adds urgency to the conversation.
Virtual conversations require meticulous planning. Establish guidelines for features and set clear expectations for the chat protocol. In addition to offering an overview of the chat and how it should function, explain how to:
- Jump in when you have a thought.
- Respond to others.
- Ask questions.
- Transition to a different topic.
Participants appreciate clear direction, especially when discussing difficult topics. Set protocols allow for focusing on the discussion and eliminating mental boundaries virtual conversations create.
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Step into action
Many organizations made sweeping commitments to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in the wake of 2020’s national conversation about racial inequality and not all followed through. During June’s pride month, companies eagerly released rainbow versions of logos yet often did not take steps to institute actual change.
A recent study conducted by the Josh Bersin Company assessed DEI practices in different companies. Unsurprisingly, the study discovered candid discussions were the most successful. After analyzing over 80 DEI practices, what stood out most was the approach of “listening, hearing and acting” on what employees feel necessary to discuss. The challenge then becomes how best to take and act on this input.
Discussions naturally lead to accountability and action, as the act of inviting people to the table validates their voices and opinions. Ensure all leader’s actions demonstrate the input and ideas provided by the team. Prepare to implement action items based on the conversation. Try setting the rule that no one leaves the meeting without adding at least one actionable item to the calendar:
- A meeting with other department heads to discuss a new inclusion initiative
- A team or personal volunteering opportunity
- A follow-up meeting to present potential office policy changes to the team
Nothing generates frustration like a deep conversation where people feel safe and encouraged to share their convictions — and others listen, hear, empathize and claim to understand — with no tangible results afterward. These necessary and sometimes difficult conversations must lead to action. Those actions inevitably lead to more conversations — and a stronger, more collaborative work culture. It all starts with companies and leaders willing to make the space for and create those necessary conversations.
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