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The noise of our workplaces is made out of silences

Most people engage in conversation for most of their working and social day, potentially consuming and generating significant creative energy, insights and collaborative possibility.

As the vehicle of such potential, I consider conversation to be the most important work we do; the medium through which we organise action and determine the strategic future of our relationships and organisations. 

Yet in my experience this powerful aspect of organisational life gains little attention in terms of resources or development. We are conversational beings, but we have been conditioned to resist conversation by the powers and inequalities of the modern age. We barely think about, let alone invest in or consider improving, this aspect of our daily practice. 

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The standards we set and expect at work will not only impact employee engagement and the quality of working life generally, but they can also have a broader influence in shaping conversations in our social communities and beyond.

Quality conversation is one where each of us involved feels a sense of inclusion and belonging, where we feel encouraged to participate and our contributions considered.

If we leave a conversation feeling invisible or excluded, or that some of our deepest convictions or ideas are not being heard or taken seriously, we lose interest, and at worst become disengaged and lose self-esteem. This is in addition to all the negative emotions and harm that being silenced or excluded generates.

HR practitioners are ideally placed to help improve the dynamics of workplace conversation. However, they themselves need to know what good conversation looks and feels like. Everybody’s style of speaking and listening is a mixture of echoes emerging from the various experiences and stages of our lives. 

Our ability to see and hear our colleagues even if they are right in front of us is often compromised by unhealthy patterns of talking developed over time, and compounded by always being so ‘busy’ and the pressure we put ourselves under to constantly be accomplishing things.

If inclusive conversation is all our responsibility how can HR practitioners support leaders and teams?

Firstly, we need to build intentionality. It is helpful to think of good conversation as a corporate discipline that requires us to cultivate personal presence and skills required for talking and working together well, in both intimate conversations and more complex conversations.

In larger conversations a facilitator or leader may be required to keep everyone engaged. The aim is to cultivate conversational spaces in which quality conversations can unfold.

Ultimately every team and group will have to discern how it is going to talk together. It may not be possible to offer a single set of rules to help every type of workplace conversation however, devoting attention to a few specific factors can make a huge difference.

The first of these is to create the space for talking about the intention to improve workplace conversations. It’s important to gain awareness of how people, especially minority groups, experience talking together. How do they feel during and when they leave a meeting, and how do they want to feel? 

These initial conversations should be free of blame. Inclusion is everyone’s responsibility, and inevitably the subject of bias will come up. It’s important that people are supported in doing the personal work involved in learning to recognise and manage their own biases. The first step is being able to talk openly about bias and being prepared to admit some of our own. 

Another important factor is good facilitation. Facilitators can be identified within the team or group or be invited in. Their main task is to help the group increase effectiveness by improving its process and structure. 

This means helping the group to become aware of how its members talk together, who silences who, how they share ideas, make decisions, solve problems together, and how they handle conflict. 

Once a team has identified the characteristics of good conversation and how they want to experience and feel talking together, these elements can be documented, used to identify personal development needs, and reflect on progress.

Only when people learn the art of good conversation will they begin to be equal. The obstacle to this is not knowing who we are talking to. Good conversation demands curiosity and equality between those participating. Our differences create mystery, which is why all people are worth talking to.


Debbie Bayntun-Lees is professor of organisational change at Hult International Business School (Ashridge)