5 tips to have meaningful conversations with your employees

How do you get your employees to share their honest thoughts? Here are 5 tips to show you how.

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So here’s the scenario. You’re a great leader and you’re organising regular catchups with your employees to gain insight into their working experience… So how do you get your employees to share their honest thoughts?

The real challenge is showing people that you care, to break through perception to get to reality to improve reality. Did that make sense?

Let’s break it down:

People share and project what they want others to perceive. It’s similar to an Instagram feed. It will only display the highlight reel of someone’s life to offer a perception of how that person wants to be viewed. The reality, however, is much more convoluted and people won’t share this convoluted reality unless they are in safe company.

We can apply this to the workplace. Employees won’t open up unless they feel that you genuinely care about them and what they have to say. So… you, as the leader, want to move past the perception to find out how they are feeling to improve on this reality.

Now you can’t expect rapport to develop overnight and you certainly can’t hire a new employee and expect that they’ll share everything with you immediately. I, for one, am having very different conversations with my superiors than I was six months ago.

So Daniel (my manager) and I sat down to have an honest conversation about how to have honest conversations and here’s what we came up with:

1. Genuinely care

As a leader, you need to genuinely care about what your employee has to say. Caring = mutual trust and trust = opening up.

Every employee is different and some are more willing to open up than others. Part of caring is knowing your employees and how each determines ‘care’. 

It’s important to put yourself in the employee’s shoes and consider how they see you. Empathic intelligence can take time for those who are not used to approaching conversations this way yet the best thing to do with limited time as a leader is to make the conversation all about the other person — this is their opportunity to share.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” - F. Scott Fitzgerald

2. Ask the right questions, and ask them twice

Before you have a conversation with your employee, know what questions you are going to ask. It is also important to make the questions open-ended and to NEVER answer the question for them.

This is very important. I have a family member who whenever she calls answers her questions for me. Example: Hey, how are you? You’re good, aren’t you? And uni’s going well? Grades are up? And work is good? It’s so good to hear that you’re doing so well.

I can only answer these questions with yes or no. I am given less opportunity to share what has been happening in my life. The same rules apply in the workplace.

Also, many employees tend to offer short responses due to not wanting to waste time or giving the response they think you want to hear. Asking the question twice shows that you are interested in the long answer rather than the polite response. Daniel often says the following:

How are you… How are you really?

What’s going on… But what’s really going on?

3. Actively listen… and be OK with silence

Active listening comes part in parcel with genuinely caring. When you care about what the person across from you has to offer, you are tuned in to what they are saying. Active listening is vastly different to listening. It involves eye contact, automatic mirroring and retention of what was communicated.

Active listening allows time for silence. Allow your employees to take their time to reflect before answering your questions. You cannot expect to have a meaningful conversation with someone if you don’t actively listen and. You can’t actively listen if the other isn’t actively talking.

4. Let them make the decision

Making decisions for your employees will only reduce further decision-making behaviour. As powerfully put in an HBR article: ‘It isn’t possible for a leader to “empower” someone to be accountable and make good decisions. People have to empower themselves. Your role is to encourage and support the decision-making environment, and to give employees the tools and knowledge they need to make and act upon their own decisions.’

Your employees exist in a role that they understand and we assume, are good at. So allow your employees to make decisions within this role, they will become more effective and efficient as a result.

5. Establish mutual accountability

The last question you ask your employee should be: how can I help you?. Establishing mutual accountability signals to your employee that you're both in this and sets up a way forward. Mutual accountability establishes trust and mutual interest around a common goal, it is a two-way exchange whereby employee and employer work together to achieve what’s best for the organisation as a whole.

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