How to have better conversations

Our work relationships matter.

Many of us spend more time working or at work than we get to spend with loved ones.

Even though we may have a passing or situational relationship with our colleagues, the effects of the conversations we have – especially tough conversations – can stay with us after we clock off.

Especially in fast-paced workplaces, it is essential to understand how negative information may affect a team member’s wellbeing.

And how celebrating even the little wins contribute to a greater positive impact.

Effect of negative bias

Research has found we tend to pay more attention to negative happenings more than the positive ones.

For our team members, this can happen when they receive feedback about mistakes, performance reviews, or in disagreements about work when not resolved effectively.

Often many of us will remember the decisions we made based on negative conversations or results rather than positive meetings or achievements.

In his TED talk, Why are we so bad at reporting good news?, Angus Hervey reflects on a number of sentiments about how we process negative information.

“Along with all of the usual death and disaster and division (in the news), we also got to hear these, the stories of hope and healing” he said.

He acknowledges how easily negative news or information can proliferate, and this can be true of our workplaces – e.g. when someone leaves, loss of a client, last minute deadlines, not meeting key performance indicators or budget.

These can make us feel emotions like scared, angry, sad, powerless, or anxious.

Hervey describes how we can become familiar, accustomed to, even expectant of negative news – yet positive news can come as a surprise.

And when we hear positive news or information, Hervey says, “the world can suddenly feel like a very different place.”

We can develop negative biases, and we can avoid being too deeply impacted by negative information by maintaining to positive mindset.

This will improve our resilience, similarly, improving how we approach our work, our focus and our mood.

Reframing your approach

It may not initially seem like it, but each formal and informal conversation is an opportunity to improve our conversations, particularly if you or the business is experiencing some challenges.

Before we begin a conversation consider what you both have to lose if the talk falls flat – e.g. time, missing deadlines, potential financial loss and cost to the business, and stress leave.

“Creating a healthy and positive mindset before approaching a conversation will set both the mood and delivery” April Jones, Global Clinical Services Director at Assure said.

“Thinking that you are keen to help build someone’s skills or knowledge with your feedback, as opposed to let them know what they did wrong, will set the scene to have a positive outcome.”

Jason Jay, Senior Lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology further asserts that we can benefit from conversations which make us uncomfortable.

The key? Being able to find a middle ground.

We all have our own biases, however our empathy is the best tool for finding a middle ground.

Think about how you can become allies, and what work you are both prepared to do to arrive at a solution together.

Keeping communication open

According to Beyond Blue, ongoing communication is one of the three key things which help feel engaged, productive and well at work.

A poll has found at least 80% of workers are avoiding a difficult conversation at their workplace.

The antidote to resentment, absenteeism, staff turnover and passive aggression is simple: don’t wait to have difficult conversations at work.

“We often forget to give positive feedback to our teams. Instead, we consider the positive feedback to sandwich negative feedback” April said.

“It is helpful to do more positive standalone interactions to build engagement and connection, which reduces leaders’ anxieties if a more difficult conversation is required.”

Regardless of your level of authority, dealing with an issue sooner rather than later will help resolve it sooner.

"Most people run the other way because experience tells them the other person will be angry or defensive" researcher and co-author of Crucial Conversations Joseph Grenny said.

"And yet, our research shows the select few who know how to speak up candidly and respectfully - no matter the scary topic - can solve problems while also preserving relationships. As a result, they are considered among the top performers in their organisation."

While it may take a while to get to a solution or a solution that works, hearing another perspective can be beneficial to a solution.

BetterUp recommends five steps for leaders and employees to tackle tough conversations constructively:

Tips for employees

  • Consider the situation from their perspective – Do your best to listen and think with empathy.
  • Have a goal in mind but be flexible – Having a goal in mind or willingness to be flexible will help you to arrive at a middle ground together.
  • Work on your listening skills – Listen intently and aim to understand the person you’re talking to.
  • Take care of yourself – Tough conversations can be draining for everyone, and taking care of yourself can prevent it from turning into a fight.
  • Brainstorm solutions together – You might already have an end goal in mind, coming to a solution is a joint effort.

Tips for managers

  • Ask – yourself three questions about the issue you’re experiencing. Self-reflecting on your perception and/or perspective can get you to a solution you might not have thought of.
  • Check – yourself and whether you decide to raise the issue. You might be able to take steps to resolve the issue yourself.
  • Approach – from a neutral perspective. This will help you stay focused on being level-headed and make the recipient more receptive to listening to what you have to say.
  • Explore – their story and yours, ask questions. Approaching with a gentle curiosity about why a person thinks a particular way can reveal new information.
  • Problem solve – to move forward, but don’t rush to a solution. Ensure you have the facts you need, are agreed on what the issue is, understand the causes and ask 'why?' questions to get to the root of the problem.