The art of communication

Five tips for designing a better conversation

Karlien Vanderheyden

By Karlien Vanderheyden

Professor of Organisational Behaviour

11 October 2021

Source: Management Team (30/08/2021)

Verbal communication is an essential part of many activities within organisations. We use it to encourage people, solve problems, connect with customers, and so on. However, we have only truly understood the importance of communication since the coronavirus crisis came along. By means of discussions, we try to ensure that employees remain motivated, maintain the connection with our customers, explain how the organisation’s vision fits into the new normal, etc. At first glance, communication might seem natural; after all, we learn how to communicate from childhood onwards, right? Nonetheless, discussions don’t always go the way we would like them to.


Why are we so bad at communicating?

When we talk to another person, we assume that we are addressing the rational part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. Indeed, this is often the case. However, things can also go wrong. People tend to enter into a conversation with specific expectations and clear opinions. When these are disputed, becoming emotional is an automatic reaction. Imagine a conversation in which you want to draw your employee’s attention to his or her inadequate performance, for example. You have gathered all the facts, but as soon as the conversation begins, the employee goes on the attack and becomes very emotional. We don’t actually like difficult conversations. Sometimes, we will postpone these kinds of conversations in the hope that the problem will resolve itself. Or we might send an e-mail and hope that our message comes across well. Although this might help initially, the problem will often reappear later and usually on a larger scale. People who manage to engage in difficult conversations are often more efficient at addressing problems, building healthy relationships and teams, and achieving things.

How can we design a conversation?

Instead of simply waiting for difficult conversations, we can partially design these conversations ourselves. Alongside ‘really listening’, which was discussed in a previous article, there are a few other things we can do.

1/ Create clarity

Firstly, the aim of the discussion should be clear. The participants in the conversation must look at the same goal together, standing side by side and no longer from a position of adversity. In addition, it is important to give people the time to explain why they are looking at a problem in a certain way. This is where you may already find part of the solution.

2/ Ensure a safe environment

It is important to create an environment in which everyone feels able to be open and honest. Participants in the conversation should be able to say how they feel at the beginning, without accusing others. We can also make the intention of the conversation clear by sharing a number of principles in advance, for example. Suppose you are having a conversation about completely different processes that your team members want to use to approach customers. In this case, you can indicate that the discussion is intended to help you understand each other’s perspective, to help you find a solution in an interactive way.

3/ Have the courage to interrupt the process

It can sometimes be useful to interrupt the process, for example if someone is dominating the conversation or if it ends up in a downward spiral. The aim here is to restore positive energy to the group. For example, we might decide to introduce a brief moment of silence, which slows down the process and makes people think. This is useful before making a decision or when seeking a consensus. Another method of interrupting is to ask a question (especially if someone is dominating the conversation). You could ask for an example, which will also help to bring others back into the conversation. We can also stop the process for a moment and evaluate what we are doing.

4/ Set clear boundaries

The American Alex Osborn was one of the first people to write about the practical application of brainstorming as a creative technique for problem solving. He drew up strict rules to ensure that his team remained optimally open to new ideas. It might seem a contradiction, but ‘the creative process is often easier to navigate when there’s a box to start with’. A good board game always has clear rules, for example, and the same applies to a good conversation. When we draw up rules together with our discussion partners, we can do our best to ensure that they are formulated in a targeted and positive manner. These rules could read as follows: incorporate a brief moment of silence on a regular basis, everyone must regularly say how they feel, and everyone can play the devil’s advocate.

5/ No discussion without action

Finally, we must also ensure that something actually happens. Analysing and continuing to talk about something together can lead to paralysis. Creating something together leads to action and results. In a good discussion, we need to move from ‘talking’ to ‘making’.

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Karlien Vanderheyden

Karlien Vanderheyden

Associate Professor