The way many of us work these days is not conducive to good one-to-one discussions. My observation after 20 years of training managers is that many are always in a hurry, up against deadlines and targets. None of us mean to forget social niceties or overlook giving others the attention they deserve but all too often, other pressures take over.
Sending a quick email often seems much easier than trying to make time to have a real conversation. Add in the complications of dealing with different personalities, and it's much easier to find another way to communicate. Many of us shy away from attempting to handle those potentially awkward situations face to face - and yet deep down, we know that good working relationships are formed through real, not virtual, conversations.
Part of the problem is that often, we are just not sure how to handle the issue, or are wary of the reaction of the other person. Sometimes we just don't understand the other person's behaviour or point of view, or have been misunderstood ourselves previously, At other times, we just don't want to engage - giving bad news or reprimanding is no one's idea of enjoying work.
However, avoiding issues or handling them badly is not an option for a smart manager. We know that staff engagement has a huge impact on the bottom line, and also that the relationship between a line manager and a subordinate is an important contributing factor to individual productivity.
How can busy managers be persuaded to address the need for meaningful, effective conversations that result in engaged, happy employees? Half the battle is reminding them why it matters; there is plenty of research that proves the point, but looking at what goes on around the office will probably convince them just as well. The other half is giving them the knowledge and tools to do it effectively, in a way that is not a big drain on resources; it seems to me that they rarely have time or inclination to read heavy volumes, research online or take time out for training.
My experience and observations of 'what works' lies behind the DOTS framework that is explained in Face to Face in the Workplace. The DOTS framework provides a structure for those all important discussions, giving each topic a Definition, then a brief description of the Outcomes to achieve. Think ahead comes next, so that the manager can be prepared for the conversation, followed by Steps - what to actually do during the discussion.
Of course, there are many recurring themes in conversations and one-to-one meetings. All successful interactions rely on a combination of factors such as good body language, listening skills, mutual respect, understanding and valuing different personality styles, the ability to explain, explore and clarify while controlling emotions and choosing the right words. Is it any wonder things go awry! Without a grasp of the fundamentals, conversations are highly like to cause more problems than they solve.
The starting point of being a good communicator begins with knowing yourself and how you present yourself to others. This is as important to newly-appointed managers, who need to quickly assimilate ways of motivating and influencing staff, as it is to those of us who are longer in the tooth and in danger of resting on our rusty laurels.
Self-awareness can partly come from reflecting on our own actions. It is also useful to have a basic knowledge of personality styles, using a model such as MBTI or The Big Five. This can help us identify our natural behaviour and understand how adapting it can make it easier for others with different traits to connect with us more readily.
Third party views are also needed if we are to get the full picture. It's not always easy to get honest feedback, but it is critical if we are to evaluate our effectiveness and impact. 360 feedback is another useful tool, as long as the findings are handled sensitively and appropriately.
After self-awareness, the next most common recurring theme discussed is taking time to see the situation from the other person's point of view. This does not mean bowing to their opinion, but rather seeking to understand their concerns, knowledge and motives so that you can make educated choices about how to speak to them in a way that is meaningful to them, by connecting to their reality.
Assumption is another issue that raises it's head fairly often. Most of the time our assumptions are correct, and we need to act on them because life is too short to start from scratch on every occasion. However, a lot of grief can be avoided if, during conversations, assumptions are identified and checked. Many problems occur because we assume the other person understands, has the same beliefs as us, or wants the same things without actually checking this to be true.
We can all hold a conversation - but to get the best out of our one to one meetings and difficult discussions, let's remember it's a skill that can not only be grown, but also lead to more clarity, better results and happier people. Who wouldn't want that?