It is worth reading Quality Workplace Conversations Matter as an introduction to this post.
Providing conversations have a purpose and stay focussed on that purpose, below are five characteristics of high quality workplace conversations.
1. Listen for understanding
When you are listening to another team member speak, my bet is that you are really just waiting for them to stop speaking so that you can speak, or you are noting the things that they are saying that you can either agree with or debate.
You are not listening with the intent of understanding what they are saying.
Listening for understanding does not mean ‘listening for agreement’. You do not have to agree with another person’s perspective to understand it.
When you listen to understand, you recognise that your perspective is only ever part of the picture – it is never the full picture. When listening for understanding, an argument that is formed in your head while another person is speaking is used as a catalyst for recognising that you have just stopped listening and may not fully understand what the other person is saying.
This triggers the second characteristic of a high quality conversation.
2. Ask genuine, high quality questions
A genuine question is one for which you are open to whatever answer is provided after you ask your question. When my five-year old son asks for a lollie and I say, “No”, and he cries and demands that I give him one, he is demonstrating that his original question was not a genuine one.
You may laugh, but my guess is that (metaphorically speaking) you ask a lot of non genuine questions and throw similar tantrums when you don’t get the answer you want.
High quality questions allow the respondent to provide a genuine, open response. Low quality questions generate defensiveness and close down conversations.
The best resource for improving the quality of your questions is, “Leading With Questions” by Michael Marquardt.
There is a flip side to this characteristic. You welcome questions that are asked of you.
3. Let people finish
There are two sides to this characteristic as well. When people are speaking, let them finish saying what they are saying before you speak. When you are speaking, maintain awareness of how much you are speaking. Keep to the point and be as clear as possible. This leads to the fourth characteristic.
4. Share the floor
High quality conversations are ones where whatever needs to be said and explored, is said and explored. This doesn’t mean that everyone says an equal number of words nor has an equal amount of ‘air time’. It means that the genuine opportunity for everyone to speak exists, and everyone uses that opportunity if they have something to say.
5. New possibilities are possible
The challenge with most conversations is that everyone is locked in to their pre-existing thought patterns. Nothing new is possible. Just a re-hashing of the past.
This isn’t particularly useful in the fast changing world that we live in. Learning is essential for survival, so new possibilities need to be possible.
High quality conversations allow new possibilities to emerge and to be genuinely explored, because without them real learning can’t occur.
High quality conversations is a learned skill, which means they can be taught. Imagine your team learning how to have high quality conversations while doing your ‘real‘ work. It is possible.