Eight tips for better conversations at work

Written by: Helen Webb | Published:
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What if you could boost the morale of staff, make your team feel more valued, strengthen relationships, and increase effectiveness without any impact on staff workload and at zero cost? Helen Webb explains how to have better conversations


The following are some simple tips that any member of staff can adopt to have “better conversations” and consequently improve wellbeing, strengthen relationships, and increase effectiveness at work.

While there are situations such as in line management meetings, appraisals, or during mentoring or coaching sessions that these skills are invaluable, they can be applied to every kind of conversation.

Every member of staff in school has the capability and responsibility to communicate well, not only to improve the working lives of themselves and their colleagues, but also for our students as they will ultimately learn from the behaviours and habits that we role-model to them. Here are eight practical tips.


1, How are you? Ask twice

One of the simplest courtesies is to greet people with a smile and ask: “How are you?” This simple habit whether you are passing in the corridor or beginning a meeting acknowledges the individual behind the role and is also the first step in making a personal connection and brightening up your colleague’s day.

Responses to this question, however, are often rote – “Fine, thanks. How are you?” – as most people are used to the routine of this polite but brief discourse. This is fine, of course, when you are greeting colleagues in the middle of a break duty, but it rarely invites a genuine response.

The solution (when you have more time) is to simply ask the question again, perhaps reframing it if necessary – “How are you really? Tell me…” – and listen with genuine interest. You may be surprised by how much you learn about that person.


2, Pay attention

Whether you are having a conversation with colleagues at lunch-time or in a line management meeting, give the speaker your full attention. Nothing is more demoralising and infuriating than someone multi-tasking or looking over your shoulder while you are sharing something important with them.

Show you are listening with a nod of the head or the occasional minimal prompt – “yes”, “mmm”, “okay” etc. When you are listening to somebody, take notice of your own body language, facial expression, tone of voice and degree of eye contact. What message are you sending to your colleague? What impact is this having? Also, take notice of the speaker’s tone of voice and body language, etc. What is it they are saying to you? What are they not saying? What is the real issue?


3, Delay the conversation if necessary

Colleagues may wish to speak to you while you are in full flow of your work or in a communal space (faculty office or classroom) with little privacy.

Either decide to stop what you are doing and give your undivided attention to the person in front of you or inject some time. Perhaps by saying: “This sounds important. I am in the middle of something right now. Please can you meet me at (3pm) in (my office) so that I can give you my full attention.”

This strategy can also work well if you are caught off guard and you feel that you may benefit from some additional preparation time for this particular conversation.


4, Avoid distractions

If the conversation is of a sensitive nature or is confidential and you are likely to be disturbed, move to a quiet space, put up a “meeting in progress” sign and close the door. Avoid obvious distractions by putting your laptop lid down, locking your PC screen, or by silencing email notifications.

Take your office phone off the hook and put your mobile phone away – don’t just turn it upside down on your desk, switch it off and put it out of sight. Consider the message you are sending if you appear to be choosing the interruption of a buzzing message over the person sitting right in front of you. If you are waiting for an important call, warn your colleague in advance so they understand the interruption.


5, Just listen!

When someone really listens to you, it can make us feel supported and that our ideas, thoughts and feelings are valued. Isn’t that what most of us want? Unfortunately, listening is a skill that many of us are poor at or rarely give our attention to.

Consider what is going on in your mind when you are listening. Are you distracted by the never-ending list of jobs that you still have to do today or by an impending school bell? Is the content of the conversation resonating with you and reminding you of when something similar happened to you?

Are you desperately trying to think of a solution to this person’s issue, or waiting for your moment to jump in and offer a quick-fix or piece of sage advice?

How frustrating is it when you just want to speak and the other person either interrupts or steers the conversation in a completely different direction?

The solution is simple – just stop talking and don’t interrupt. When you think the person has finished speaking, pause and then pause a little bit more.

It might feel awkward at first – but only to you – your colleague will value the space to think. When they have finished speaking, ask: “Is there anything else you want to say or share on this matter?”

It is a simple question, but it shows that you care, and often, all people need is a bit of airtime. Staying silent is also a common strategy employed by coaches, therapists and negotiators. Most people, wanting to avoid a perceived awkward silence, will continue to speak often then revealing the real issue.


6, Agree your role in the conversation.

In more formal conversations it can be really useful to establish what the other person needs from you. It can guide you both to the purpose of the conversation and can help lead to a more satisfactory outcome. Teaching can be tough and sometimes staff just need to offload. More often than not, if you follow with “what do you need from me in this situation?” the reply is invariably that they just needed to get the issue off their chest or needed some empathetic acknowledgement that the situation was difficult.

In meetings it can help to discuss the different ways you can support your colleague during the conversation. It can also prevent the offer of unsolicited advice and subsequent frustrations.

For example: “Would you like me to just listen and be a sounding board while you explore this issue? Would you like my advice, opinion or ideas? Would you like me to challenge your thinking or perspective on this matter? Would you like me to point out your blind-spots or play ‘Devil’s advocate’ with you? Would it help if one of us made notes?”


7, What’s your point?

Have you ever left a discussion and were not sure what the message was? Or maybe you had no idea what you were supposed to do with the excess of information you have just received.

Poor communication can cause an unnecessary amount of confusion and can lead to stress if staff are left ruminating over unclear messaging. Poor communication can also impact on workload if staff have to amend substandard work produced as a result of a poor initial explanation or if they have to ask for further clarification.

Sometimes we dilute our message because we are afraid of the impact it might have on the person receiving it; sometimes it is because we simply haven’t thought through what we want to say ahead of time.

If the point you are trying to make is important, think ahead. What’s the headline? What, exactly, do you want the other person to know, be aware of, understand or do? Teachers and leaders are time-poor – if you had to say what you wanted to say in the minimum number of words, what would they be? How can you say this in the kindest possible way? How do you know the other person has fully understood what you have said or asked?

To clarify any expectations, Brené Brown in her book Dare to Lead (2018), suggests asking the great question: “What does ‘done’ look like?” This can prompt any further what, where, when, or how questions.


8, What does success look like?

It is easy to get side-tracked in conversations and for meetings to end without a satisfactory conclusion. If you are leading the conversation, one simple strategy is to ask from the outset: “What would be a successful outcome for this conversation for you?”

It might be that someone simply wants the opportunity to air an issue or perhaps they want some guidance on their next steps. Does the member of staff want an opportunity to have their hard work acknowledged and celebrated by you?

How do you know if the conversation has had a satisfactory conclusion? What purpose has it served? If appropriate ask: “Given all the points we have discussed, what has resonated with you most? What is your key take-away? What will be your next steps? What was most useful or valuable thing about our conversation for you today? Let’s just check again that we are on the same page on this matter.”


Conclusion

I will leave you with one final thought that my own mother used to reiterate to me growing up: “Speak to others how you would like others to speak to you.” Or if I may put my own twist on this: “Listen to others how you wish others would listen to you.”

  • Helen Webb is a science teacher and professional coach working at Orchard Mead Academy in Leicester. She has experience coaching internally and externally supporting teachers and leaders with wellbeing and professional development. Follow her @helenfwebb or visit https://helenfwebb.wordpress.com. Read her previous articles at http://bit.ly/seced-webb


Further listening

The SecEd Podcast: Coaching and mentoring in schools, September 2021 (featuring Helen Webb): https://bit.ly/3jh8Zwi


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