Boiling it down to the bare essentials, running a business is about optimising a number of people to work with you towards a shared goal. In this series, we break down exactly how you can use your One to One conversations to achieve that.
The One to One conversations you have with people in your business are by far the strongest tool you have for optimising your team. It’s no exaggeration to say that having the right conversations in the right way can be the difference between your company succeeding and failing.
It’s easy to assume that the skills associated with conversations and professional interactions are something innate, that you’re born with - or will never have. This is completely untrue. Like all skills, they can be learned.
To help you, we’ve broken up the process of having productive teams into four core areas and built comprehensive briefings for all of them. They are:
Part 1: The Basics. You’ll learn about some standard best-practices for having productive conversations.
Part 2: Understanding your employees. Develop your ability to truly understand what your team wants and needs, so you can build an in-depth basis for your interactions with them.
Part 3: How to support your team. Learn to build a supportive environment in which people can freely take risks, fail, learn and succeed.
Part 4: How to challenge your team. The final touch: learn how to challenge your team with high expectations, producing personal development and growth.
Unsurprisingly, we’re starting off with Part 1 - The Basics. These are the absolute fundamentals that can help improve the quality of every conversation you have with your team.
Know Your Goal
Before every conversation with a team member, make sure you have a clear idea of your goal. Throughout the conversation, keep this goal in the back of your mind. This keeps the conversation focused, productive and helps you adopt a suitable tone.
Ever had a conversation which took ages, meandered through various points and ended with neither party feeling like they’d got anywhere? That’s probably because you didn’t know or stay focused on your goal.
Some common goals for conversations I have regularly:
- Help them make progress with a challenge they are facing
- Help them get perspective on a current major worry for them
- Understand their current challenges
- Get them excited about an opportunity at hand
- Make sure they understand the constructive feedback I have for them
- Make sure they know they’ve done a good, bad or average job
- Ensure they have a clear idea of what their progression looks like
- Give them a space to contribute feedback on how the company is being run
Don’t obsess over this - it shouldn’t take much energy. Just try to take a minute or so before each conversation to clarify your thoughts.
Every conversation is different.
The space in which you hold a conversation has a massive impact on how the conversation is going to go. If you hold every conversation in the same office room, you’re doing something wrong.
Some different environments and how I tend to use them:
Office meeting room
Features: formal, professional, quiet
Best for: short, focused conversations which have a clear topic to discuss
Worst for: discussions where you want people to tackle the bigger picture
Features: informal, creative, cooperative
Best for: longer meetings where you want the individual to think freely and ambitiously - such as discussing what their next role might be.
Worst for: Any formal discussion, such as negative feedback
Features: Informal, focused, lack of eye-contact encourages people to speak freely
Best for: discussions where there is lots of processing on both sides - such as challenging feedback.
Worst for: any conversation which will produce multiple, specific tasks (people aren’t good at processing lists while they walk!)
This isn’t just about listening to people - it’s about making people feel like they are being heard. Here's how you do it:
- Lean into the awkward silences: moments of silence prompt people to talk, and often end up taking them to the real topics that they wanted to discuss. If someone doesn’t immediately answer your question, don’t talk just to fill the silence: pause and wait for them to come up with something.
- Ask for expansion: if someone makes an interesting point, ask them to expand on it: ask them how they got to the point, what the implications are, and why they think it is important.
- Think about your body language. Coaches often talk about “mirroring”. I find this a little creepy and intense most of the time, but I often focus on whether I’m adopting an “open” or “closed” posture.
- Eye contact. This is something I struggle with, but it’s extremely important.
- Minimise distractions: get rid of phones / laptops, unless they’re for taking notes – and if you are taking notes, make it clear what you’re doing.
- Reward. If you feel someone has been honest or shared something important, reward them by explicitly saying that you appreciate it.
This is far from an all-inclusive list, and investing in your listening skills is always a worthwhile activity - so I’d recommend everyone read Nancy Kline’s book Time to Think. It’s really the definitive piece of writing on how to listen.
Ask good questions
I often see my role as being to help people understand what they really think. To do that, it’s often a good idea to avoid offering direct advice, instead focusing on asking the right question at the right time. This allows people to find their own way to the solution, rather than having it delivered to them, which can end up feeling overly prescriptive.
Here are some tools I use to make sure I’m asking the right questions:
- What/how, not why. Asking “what” and “how” instead of “why” usually comes across as less confrontational, and often ends up producing the answer to the “why” question.
- Follow the GROW model: Goal (what do you want?) Reality (where are you now?) Options (what could you do?) Will (what will you do?). Read more here.
- Flip It - If someone is getting stuck by looking at it from one perspective - flip it around. For example, if they can’t answer “what does success look like for you this year?”, instead ask “What do you want to avoid happening this year?”
- Advance warning - if you’re expecting to ask tough questions, give advance warning and examples of the sort of questions you’re likely to ask.
This is probably the most boring piece of advice I’m going to give you. Unfortunately, it’s also probably the most important.
Our impression of people is hugely inconsistent, and can be distorted by tiny factors: your mood, their mood, the time, what they’re working on, what you’re working on, whether you’ve had your coffee that morning…
You should strive to be objective in your assessment of people. However, you should also accept that you will never fully eliminate the influence of day-to-day factors. The only way to get around this issue, then, is to keep an ongoing set of notes on an individual’s performance, development and progression. Build up a few dozen notes about an individual like that, and you can weed out the day-to-day inconsistencies and get a sense of their overall trajectory.
You should be making some quick notes every time you have a One to One conversation with someone. It’s also often a good idea to immediately email these over to the person in question: this helps them point out any miscommunications and can ensure that they keep the subject of discussion in their minds.
The absolute key ingredient in any good relationship is trust. This shouldn’t be any different in a professional environment. Conversations where both sides trust each other enough to be open and honest are always more productive.
Usually, building trust between yourself and another person takes a lot of time. However, you can speed the process up. You do this by demonstrating that you already trust someone, through allowing yourself to be vulnerable around them. They’ll recognise this, and in return, will open up to you.
To allow yourself to be vulnerable:
- Share information. Consistently strive to be transparent, and foster a culture of transparency across your organisation.
- Share your thoughts. Be real with sharing your own thoughts on topics of interest. If you can’t tell someone what you really think about a situation, they won’t do the same.
- Show some emotion! Everyone knows that running a business is hard. If you’re not talking about or showing some of your struggles, people will assume something is being concealed.
Congratulations - you’ve finished Part 1 of our guide to having great conversations. You’ve now got a strong set of foundations for having productive and positive conversations with your team.
But that’s just the basics. Next up we’re going to move your conversations from “good” to “great” by learning how to understand your employees.