Have you attended a meeting to discuss a workplace issue on a challenging topic? Perhaps you need to evaluate an employee’s poor performance? Or the company’s inability to give yearly bonuses?

Did everyone involved feel empowered to speak up and share their feelings and opinions Unfortunately, the answer to this is usually, yes, you’ve been to these meetings, but no, not everyone felt like they could speak up.

Typically these tough conversations arise when one party needs something from the other, such as the opportunity to share less than positive feedback or an employee to produce better results, etc. 

Furthermore, when conflict arises, it can be difficult for the facilitator to consider all perspectives. When faced with these situations, ill-thought-out statements are often made, creating broken, distrustful relationships. In turn, we’re conditioned to avoid candid conversations.

Conversation Design

HR departments must encourage open, honest and inclusive conversations regularly, not only when an issue or sensitive topic arises. The goal is to achieve the best outcomes for all parties involved, not only those who called the meeting. Additionally, by changing the stigma away from being a “tough” conversation and instead focusing on the potential, mutually beneficial outcome, these discussions will become easier and more enjoyable experiences.

A newer design principle, conversation design, builds discussions based on natural, human conversations. It focuses on a logical flow while meeting the needs of the people involved.

In a workplace setting, we typically think an HR leader with sophisticated tools at their disposal must be present in all more challenging discussions. In reality, when armed with the right approach, anyone at any level can facilitate such a discussion. In this case, HR professionals, managers and team leaders design talk tracks to engage current and future employees.

Successful conversation maps draw on art, science and rounds of tests and practices. To foster a workplace encouraging critical conversations, consider these tips for engaging dialogue across your organization.

Understand the Reason for the Conversation

Studies show lack of open communication and support in a manager/employee relationship fosters a toxic culture, causing employees to seek new opportunities.

Before designing a conversation, establish the importance of having it in the first place. A primary reason is to remove awkwardness surrounding tough topics and encourage open dialogue, especially in settings where we want to be professional and never too emotional.

Chances are, if something requires this type of conversation, it may be uncomfortable. What central tension does the issue hold? What are the unavoidable topics? What shared truth do all parties need to take away from it? Address the discomfort head-on to make the conversation as productive as possible.

Conversations Are a Journey, Not a One-and-Done

We’re all guilty of exchanging feedback and thinking, ‘phew, glad that’s over.’ We need to do away with this mindset. Conversations must be a journey, not a one-time occurrence that we get over with and move on.

Success, a consensus, or a plan of action seldom comes from a single discussion. Instead, it is a journey requiring everyone’s involvement, personal reflection, and mutual respect. Staying on course and not giving up requires time and effort, the place where many of us get stuck.

Engagement platforms for in-person and virtual conversations empower participants in a journey of self-discovery through questions gauging current experiences. There are no right or wrong answers, only sharing feelings, thoughts and experiences. Such an approach leverages Marshal Ganz’s community organizing principles.

  1. The story of self: Ask a question evoking a personal story. Establish shared empathy and a basis of trust before moving on to deeper challenges.
  2. The story of us: This question identifies a shared struggle, pointing out the tension and connecting participants to the overarching challenge.
  3. The story of now: These questions spark a sense of urgency and action. They shift participants away from the negative mindset and toward the cultivation of empowerment by encouraging personal responsibility.

This proven structure encourages managers and employees alike to look below the surface to find the root of an issue. It creates an environment where people feel heard, cared about and inclined to pursue positive change.

How to Design the Conversations

The possibilities appear endless when it comes to developing the meaningful discussions themselves. However, don’t view this as overwhelming, instead focus on the potential it allows. Look to influence the structure of the conversation with design rather than force of will. This design skill to create conversations isn’t reliant on interpersonal skills but on identifying an opportunity to shape the outcome and impact.

Don’t feel the need to develop an entire conversation, instead focus on building the right questions following the above three-step process. These questions set the stage for provocative, open discussions. The magic of an impactful conversation comes from releasing complete control over the direction.

When in doubt, three basic guidelines keep conversations more equitable without causing worry about the direction they may take.

  1. Set the ground rules: What is off-limits? Hateful speech, “you” statements, etc.
  2. Encourage all parties to participate: A fruitful discussion requires participants on both sides to engage.
  3. Keep groups small enough to feel heard and large enough to gather diverse perspectives: Especially in conversations focused on feedback; the fewer voices in the room, the more comfortable others will be to share and not feel ganged upon.

What Else To Keep In Mind

At this point, you might think, “easier said than done,” but in actuality, the concept of conversation design is a culmination of skills that have been around for quite some time. And abilities most of us have, especially in an HR, manager or leader role. A couple of final tips for setting you up for success:

  • Know your audience: Who needs to be involved in the conversation? What assumptions will people have coming into this conversation? For example, if they’ve made a few mistakes recently, they may come with a hesitant or defensive attitude. What perspectives and voices must you include? In the same example, starting with an employee and a manager may be best — no need to further involve additional people, especially in an initial discussion.
  • Bridge the expectation gap: As the facilitator, you’ll enter a conversation with different expectations than your participants. Don’t position topics where you’re the expert, and you’ll know the participants will feel ill-prepared to speak about them. Phrase questions in an encouraging tone, allowing people to speak from lived experiences. Develop prompts for each question to provide a little more context before jumping right in to answer. Avoid fact-based questions, as they’ll shift the vibe from heart to mind.

At the end of the day, employees, managers, leaders and recruits all want to feel heard. If you’ve made an open, honest and judgment-free zone for people to share their stories, you’ve created an impactful conversation. In turn, this establishes a more inclusive culture, something people constantly look for in the workplace.


Authors
Jenn Graham

​​Jenn Graham is on a mission to design a more inclusive world. An activist, designer and civic tech entrepreneur, Jenn Graham is the Founder and CEO of Inclusivv, bringing diverse voices together for conversations that matter.


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