Image by Antonio Rodriguez
Having effective conversations at work can be difficult. Add in the challenges of a remote workplace, and powerful conversations become even more elusive. Regardless of whether you are relaying a task, providing feedback, onboarding a new member to your team, or having a conversation with a mentor, having a plan for the conversation will allow you to manage for clarity, ensuring that no one leaves feeling confused or like they wasted their time. Using a framework for your conversations will make it easier to ensure that they are meaningful and effective—even when we find ourselves collaborating while miles apart.
Set the agreement
Complex conversations are, well, complex. Things that may seem obvious to you, might not be obvious to the person you’re talking to, so it’s critical that you start the conversation in a clear and methodical way. “Setting the agreement” provides a foundation, or starting point, for the conversation. It allows all parties to get clarity on what the conversation will be about, why you’re having it, and what the outcomes will be. This can be done in as little as two to four minutes. It's not a long process, but it will help you ensure that you know where you're going in your conversation.
You can do this by establishing clear topics, goals, and the significance for any given meeting. Ask:
What are you here to talk about? Define what must be achieved, resolved, or accomplished during the conversation.
What do you want to walk away with from this conversation? The measure of success will vary depending on the type of conversation you’re having—it may be assigning tasks or developing action steps, an opportunity to strategize, or simply sharing what it is you need to share. By taking a moment at the beginning of the conversation to clearly state the outcome you would like to achieve together, you point the conversation in a clear direction so that everyone will understand what needs to happen for the meeting to be a success.
Why is this conversation important to have at this moment? Particularly when you're thinking about mentoring, giving feedback, or working with young lawyers or students, having an opportunity to talk about and explore the personal importance of the conversation is essential because it anchors the conversation in something meaningful.
Listening may sound simple and automatic, but really listening to someone requires an incredible amount of intention and focus. Often, when we have conversations, our focus moves inward and we listen to the little voice in our head that says things like: “What is my response to what they are saying right now?”, "What is my opinion of them or what they are saying?", “I don't think they are saying this the right way”, “What do people want me to say?”, “What will make me sound smart or look good?” Sometimes the voice in our head isn't even in the meeting! It thinks things like "What am I going to make for dinner?", "I better not forget to send that important email", or "I really need to schedule that doctor/hair/dentist/other appointment." This is our default mode when we listen, and it’s what most of us do, most of the time. By focusing on our own thoughts, opinions, judgments, feelings, and conclusions, we miss hearing the perspective of others. To begin to shift away from your internal mode of listening, practice ignoring that voice in your head and instead focus on what the other person is saying. In addition, see what else you can pick up from this focused space—what do you notice about how they feel about what they are saying, or what is not being said but implied or avoided?
Actively tuning out or disengaging your internal voice is critical to having powerful conversations, particularly in a remote setting. Focused listening is a practice, not unlike meditation or breathing exercises, in which you shift the spotlight over to the person speaking, solely focusing it on them, their words, and their body language. In doing so, you can pick up on the underlying nuance that you miss in internal listening.
As your conversation begins to wind down, circle back to the agreement and measure of success you set at the beginning of the conversation. Do you have the action plan you wanted? Did you have the opportunity to share the necessary information? Did you achieve the outcome that you agreed upon? If not, look into what needs to happen so that you achieve your stated outcome. Or, perhaps your conversation morphed into something different than what you expected at the outset, and you achieved a different outcome (in which case, you can revise the original agreement to include the change). The important thing is to look back and ask, “Did we meet our objectives?” If not, have a conversation about what changed to ensure that everyone is clear and there are no misunderstandings.
Clarify the value generated
Providing an opportunity at the end of a conversation to reflect on it and look for the value generated can transform a mediocre conversation into a powerful one. While it may seem awkward at first, asking, “So what has been valuable or useful?" "How was this helpful?" or “What did you get from this conversation?" is a simple way to conclude a conversation and look for the value of it in the moment. Additionally, wrapping up with this type of inquiry will leave people with the sense that they have been seen and heard.
In a remote workplace, the need (and desire) for meaningful conversations has never been so great. As we navigate this new normal, and as boundaries between work and life continue to blur, it’s critical that we effectively communicate with each other. Having a framework, or even just a place to start, ensures that we cross the distance and connect with each other in our conversations.