The Importance of Employee Conversations

by Mark Brewer, Adjunct Faculty
February 7, 2019

The work of a manager revolves around conversations. Only through conversations with your team, your peers and work partners, and your own manager, can you influence productivity and engagement. Every responsibility that attaches to the manager’s function as a leader of people depends on the interaction you have with others, most especially your staff.

Because the manager’s primary objective is to influence productivity and engagement, it’s important to understand an essential truth about the interactions this influence requires – the conversations.

Mark Brewer, Adjunct Faculty

In a conversation, the listener controls understanding, not the speaker. This is important not only because it may be counterintuitive at first glance, but because it is in the “speaking” that we invest most of our energy.

Who holds the power in a conversation?

Consider this “Sender-Listener” relationship: throughout our professional careers, we work to improve and refine our skills at “Sending.” We focus on expressing information, thought, and opinion. We practice speaking, presenting, and writing. We strive to refine our verbal and non-verbal messaging to establish our “presence” both in person and through proxies (email, texting, instant messaging, etc.)

We invest far less effort in “Listening.” We tend to view “Listening” as the lesser role in a conversation because we believe that power resides with the Sender. And yet, who controls understanding and interpretation in a conversation? In spite of all our effort to perfect our communication skills it is the Listener who really controls interactions. The Listener, not the Speaker.

It is the Listener who filters and interprets the message. The Listener, not the Speaker, ultimately holds the power to defile or preserve the integrity of the intended message.

No matter how we sweat and strive to improve our messaging, our best efforts succeed or fail on the ears and eyes of the Listener. The real impact of that carefully managed facial expression or highly polished sentence is not in our control. Think back on every conversation, every email in which additional “explanation” was required.

What does this mean for the manager, who is not only reliant upon, but responsible for, others’ productivity and engagement? The answer is simple, but vexing: become the Listener.

How to go from Sender to Listener?

When so much depends on our ability to explain, direct, or cajole, how can we possibly lead others in the “passive” role of a Listener? It seems like driving from the passenger seat. (That analogy might be useful here: the manager’s role may be less akin to driving a vehicle than to coordinating and motivating multiple drivers in multiple vehicles, ensuring that the company’s “fleet” is being operated efficiently and in concert.)

The answer is simple. To become the Listener, ask questions.

Among the many devices in our human communication toolkit questions are the power tools. Questions open doors. Questions discover and uncover. Questions give us insight we would not have otherwise. Questions sponsor thought and expression. Questions generate information that translates into knowledge, making us better equipped to make informed choices.

With apologies to Wayne Gretzky, “You gain zero insight from 100% of the questions you don’t ask.”

Recognize, though, that questions serve a dual purpose. We may view a question as an extraction device used to pry loose information. But questions also build bridges between people. Questions, used well, build trust and confidence, instill autonomy and personal accountability.

The key phrase here is “questions used well.” A question is a complex recipe of all our native communication skills: the words we choose, the tone and inflection of our voice, the non-verbal signals we send. Likewise, the power of a question to inform extends beyond the literal answer, to the way in which the question is answered -- the reaction of the other.

Use the right words

Yet word choices are the essential ingredient in the mix. Changing a single word alters a question immeasurably, and there are dozens of ways to ask the same question. Mark Twain explained, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Consider this familiar phrase:

“What were you thinking?”

Observe the impact of only modest changes to this simple sentence, affecting not only the likely reactions, but also the tone of the question-asker:

“What are you thinking?”

“What do you think?”

The well-constructed, well-expressed questions can uncover unknowns that can substantially alter understanding and improve communications. For the busy manager these questions can greatly enhance productivity and agreement in the workplace.

Gain a better understanding of how you can improve as a Listener with Mark Brewer’s course Transition to Manager: A One-Week Boot Camp.