University of Minnesota
Office of Human Resources

Great Conversations at Work

By Jeff Stafford, Consultant
Organizational Effectiveness

During each day, there are many opportunities to create Great Conversations. Through conversation, we find connections with others. It's a way to build relationships and get things done; it's also a way to find meaning and purpose within ourselves. A Great Conversation is one in which there is give and take, mutual understanding, and a shared responsibility. Creating Great Conversation is an art—an art that anyone can learn.

Think about one of the last really great conversations you had:

  • Who was it with?
  • What did you talk about?
  • What connections were generated or fused together?
  • How did you feel during the conversation?
  • How did you feel afterwards?

There are a variety of Great Conversations that can take place. This article will discuss three of the most common conversations in the areas of work and career. The first one is often the most easy to avoid.

The Difficult Conversation

A common saying is: “How do you eat an elephant? You start by taking the first bite.” That's what you need to do in a difficult conversation. Take the first bite—not literally, but in the figurative sense. You do need to start some place.

When faced with a difficult conversation, your place in the conversation is essential to its outcome. Do you come from a place of fear—a place where you feel attacked, unsure of what's next, or even betrayed? It's easy to throw up the defensive coat of arms and ready yourself for battle. In the end, that will probably not achieve your goals.

Your place must come from curiosity—from a profound desire to seek and understand.

According to Ed Batista, a leadership coach at Stanford University, there are four tips on starting the difficult conversation.

  • Start with something positive. This will ensure that you lead with your best foot and connect with the other person.
  • Use “I” statements to express your perspective and your feelings. Starting from a place of curiosity will help you uncover the many facets of the possible “truth” in question.
  • Don't make assumptions about the other person's perspective. The other person may not even be aware of the problem or that it may be their fault. They may be much more willing to help problem solve if they're approached in the right way.
  • State your request clearly, firmly, and politely. Be sure to acknowledge any concessions that are granted.

The Networking Conversation

Last summer, I had a chance to meet Harvey Mackay, the networking guru. This is a man who knows (and teaches!) the art of creating Great Conversations through networking. Networking isn't just about shaking hands and exchanging cards. Rather, it's about relationship building. Conversation is a key aspect in relationship building. Mackay asserts that the time to dig your well (build your network) isn't when you are thirsty (looking for a job), but now. Engaging in the Networking Conversation is simple. It's simply making connections with people you want to know. While these may be people who are able to help you in the next phase of your career, more than that, they are people that you are creating relationships with through the art of conversation.

The Networking Conversation has a simple formula: Ask. Listen. Share .

People enjoy sharing their stories. When you meet someone, ask a question that allows them to begin their story. This engages and encourages the person to share what's important to them. “How did you get started in your field?” “What do you enjoy most about the work you do?” “What's the secret to your success?” are critical questions. After you've heard their story, it's time to share a bit of yours. Here, and only here, is when the more-than-formal ritual of the “card exchange” occurs. This is your pass to continue the Networking Conversation and build the relationship even further. Be sure to ask how and when you should follow up.

The Development Conversation

This conversation is about enhancing your current job skills, knowledge, or abilities. Too often, we become complacent in our daily work routines. To keep engaged and build your skill set, seek out new opportunities within your current job to keep you moving along your career path—these are referred to as development activities.

Before initiating this conversation with your manager, have a keen sense of where you are AND where you'd like to be. Identify work-related interests that you would like to enhance and that will contribute to the mission of the organization or your department. The Development Conversation is about building on the skills you already have. To help you prepare for this conversation, complete the Development Conversation Worksheet (pdf).

Once you have reflected on these questions, have the Development Conversation with your supervisor. Follow these simple steps:

  1. Set up a meeting with your manager. Ask for an hour to discuss development opportunities.
  2. Define department goals and priorities. At the meeting, clarify with your manager, the goals and priorities for the department over the next year or two, and how you fit into this vision or plan.
  3. Determine your next steps. Describe to your manager the skills that you would like to build on and ask for help in finding ways to link your career goals to the vision of the department.
  4. Identify appropriate opportunities. Working together, identify development options that support your efforts toward achieving your goals.
  5. Evaluate your progress. At regular intervals, meet with your manager/supervisor to receive input on your progress.

Here are a few more resources to help you initiate Great Conversations in your workplace: