After 15 months of living with the pandemic, we’re getting tired of being in front of a computer screen all the time. We’re not working fewer hours, but we are becoming less engaged – particularly on an emotional/heart/relationship level. You may not have seen your colleagues for months – particularly if you lead or are part of a globally dispersed team or if you haven’t had any working-from-office days. It’s so long since we’ve had social interaction that conversations have typically become more transactional, just so we can get them over with.
Technology doesn’t lend itself to meaningful conversations in the way face-to-face connection does. That’s why this article focuses on how we can have conversations that deepen relationships and are more productive and fulfilling, even online.
Why ‘meaningful’ conversation?
When each party comes away feeling heard and respected, it deepens the relationship between them. It’s evidenced by their trust and potentially an increased willingness to share their vulnerability when both have had the chance to say what needs to be said.
You’ll know a conversation has been meaningful when it involves an emotional connection with the other person.
Also, in my experience, the greatest influencers are people who listen with an open mind and open heart. Are you prepared to be influenced by someone else as much as you are to influence others?
When people really listen to each other, you can do better quality work by building on each other’s ideas and creating something as a pair or small group.
How you know whether it’s worked is partly visceral. Ask yourself: “Do I feel I have a good relationship with this person? Do I feel I can be myself and say what’s really on my mind rather than skimming the surface?”
“There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen”
Why is listening so important?
- Listening is often the only thing needed to help someone
- It creates the space for someone to think (and they know themselves better than anyone else knows them)
- It creates a safe space
- It builds trust
- It’s one of the most sincere forms of respect
- It’s one of the loudest forms of kindness
“Listening is an art that requires attention over talent, spirit over ego, others over self”
Meaningful conversation: Key principles
Here are some key principles to keep in mind.
- Remember the person you’re looking at on screen is a human being with their own thoughts, wants, needs and fears. Try to understand what’s going on under their skin
- Observe their body language as much as their words. Also listen for what they are not telling you out loud but that you can sense
- Most people focus on work because it’s more tangible and less personal. Maybe it’s less scary. But be brave. Make space and time for them to ‘go there’ and tell you their truth
- Go with the flow. Don’t try to be too efficient with time – it’s not about having time; it’s about making time
- Be really present in the moment so you can focus on the conversation. Don’t try to do two (or more) things at once. Put all other devices in a drawer or another room so you can’t be distracted. Even knowing your smartphone is on the desk beside you can dilute your attention
- Have deep respect for the person you’re talking to, even if their views are different from yours. Hold a mindset of curiosity and openness to whatever they might say and whatever may emerge between the two of you. When you make a deeper connection with them, the outcome is more likely to be creative and/or mind-shifting
- Empty your mind from the pressure to respond with a clever answer. Most people don’t listen to understand, they listen to reply. Don’t make it about you. Rather than planning what you’ll say next, be really focused on the other person. Assume they have something interesting to say. That way, you might learn something (you’ll certainly learn something about them which might increase your empathy or respect for them). And, between you, you should come up with better ideas if that’s appropriate in that moment
- Say what needs to be said. It’s natural to try to avoid conflict, because we don’t want uncomfortable conversations. But ask yourself silently: “What’s the truth that needs to be told?” Listen to your gut-feel response. Choose whether to say it right now or whether you should make a mental note to think about it and follow up later. In the moment may be more powerful. If you wait, you might overly rationalise it. Or it might give you time to have more insight and prepare how to say it. Feel what’s right
- Get to the heart of the matter. Don’t be tempted to dance around the edges and fill the silence with meandering and justification. It’s just confusing. People will get bored and disengage. Your silence is what encourages them to talk
“The word listen contains the same letters as the word silent”
Good questions to ask
- How are you today?
- How are you, really?
- You say OK, but from the tone of your voice/your body language it feels as though you might not be; do you want to share?
- What are you feeling? Tell me more about this and its impact on you……
- What’s really going on for you?
- What’s been on your mind recently?
- Don’t worry about hurting my feelings; I really want to hear your thoughts
- What do you think and/or feel about this?
- What do you want?
- What would make you feel happy/fulfilled/safe?
- What’s the truth that needs to be told?
- What’s your truth?
- What are you not saying that needs to be said?
- What’s being said that needs to be heard?
- If things could be good for you with this situation/fear/challenge, how would they have to change?
What might you hear?
As you listen, you need to be ready for anything. If they say something heart-wrenching, what do you do with that? If they are talking about something that is giving them pain or stress, don’t feel there is pressure on you to wave a magic wand and solve it. Don’t take it on your own shoulders. Remember, at this point, they are probably in an emotional state while you’re likely to be in a more rational state.
Sometimes, the most helpful thing you can do is allow them to be heard, calmly, quietly, and compassionately. It can be enough to say: “I’m really sorry, and I’m glad you told me”. Don’t judge. Confidentiality should be assured.
Later, you might add one of these questions: “What do you need?” “What would help you most right now?” “What ideas do you have about how to start to address this?”
If someone has a lot on their plate, or many different pressure points, you might ask: “If you could make one of these challenges go away, which would you choose?” Or “What might you do to start the process of solving this?”
Note that those followup ‘action’ questions would not be the first thing you’d ask after someone has shared something difficult. First, you would sit with them and let them know they’ve been heard (see above: Good questions to ask). You’d have to gauge if they were ready to move on to that or not. That way, you’ll be a better thinking partner when are are ready to start thinking about their options.
“People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel”
The wisdom of Pooh
I’ve occasionally quoted AA Milne in previous articles, because I find the Winnie the Pooh stories often include wise and gentle advice. This rather lovely extract seems to sum up the listening approach I’m recommending here.
“Today was a Difficult Day,” said Pooh.
There was a pause.
“Do you want to talk about it?” asked Piglet.
“No,” said Pooh after a bit. “No, I don’t think I do.”
“That’s okay,” said Piglet, and he came and sat beside his friend.
“What are you doing?” asked Pooh.
“Nothing, really,” said Piglet. “Only, I know what Difficult Days are like. I quite often don’t feel like talking about it on my Difficult Days either.
“But goodness,” continued Piglet, “Difficult Days are so much easier when you know you’ve got someone there for you. And I’ll always be here for you, Pooh.”
And as Pooh sat there, working through in his head his Difficult Day, while the solid, reliable Piglet sat next to him quietly, swinging his little legs…he thought that his best friend had never been more right.”
I found this article that lists suggested conversation topics. It isn’t focused on work conversations, (as you’ll see) but you might find it useful to prompt interesting virtual conversations while many of us are not able to go out much.
Virtual dinners: Conversation menus Source: The School of Life
(I like them because their content usually marries research and practical advice quite well)
If you found this information useful, you might like to read my related articles:
- How to look after the wellbeing of your workforce
- Psychological safety and team effectiveness
- How and why to collaborate effectively (especially the section on How to encourage people to talk)
- Emotionally intelligent teams (especially the section about Stephen Covey’s 5 levels of listening)
- How to have courageous conversations
- How to reboot your social skills and confidence
- How to create time to think, for yourself and others
- Why it’s OK to show emotion in the workplace (especially the bit about making emotional decisions which are later backed up by the rational brain)
- Compassion: for yourself and others
Limiting beliefs: What is a limiting belief and how to turn them off.