Increase Employee Engagement with These 5 Conversation Skills

Our 2018 predictions released earlier this week (read them here!) tell us one thing for certain: as we get ready to move into the new year, leadership will need to be willing and ready to have the sometimes tough but necessary conversations with their employees and fellow leaders.

A 2016 ATD study revealed that 83% of respondents consider communication the most important skill area for managerial success, which drives company and employee performance. And yet, according to a survey from 15Five, only 15% of employees report their companies are doing a 'very good' job fostering communication.

Frequent and honest conversation builds trust, and trust is the foundation for a healthy workplace culture. Healthy culture means higher levels of engagement, not to mention better results.

However, engagement is a widespread problem for many organizations, especially when you consider the most recent Gallup poll results on engagement which found only 32% of the U.S. workforce is engaged. Yikes!

You're probably familiar with the conversation types we offer in our programs—feedback, confrontation, coaching, delegation, accountability, generations, and negotiation…and what are some examples of day-to-day opportunities that leaders can leverage? What can you bring to the table, in the moment, to create real movement?

Let's dive into a few specific examples of conversation skills that can help stimulate productivity and engagement, build trust, and create a more inclusive culture.

1.  Say what can't be said.

Regardless of your title or position, there are moments where your knee-jerk reaction is to not say something (that your gut tells you that you should say) to your colleague, your boss, or your team.

For example, imagine you are in a meeting with a colleague who is really in love with an idea that you think will never work. Or another example, imagine confronting a member of your team about the behavior that you feel really has to change. These are the conversations with your name on them. They are uncomfortable but necessary.

Begin practicing this by noticing moments where you feel you should stay quiet, and instead, decide to speak up. Leverage confronting a situation and get curious to gain clarity. Obey your instincts.

People respond deeply to those who level with us. Strive to be the person who "gets real" and levels with someone. It may just be the game changer.

2.  Ask thought-provoking questions.

How often do you ask or get asked a truly thought-provoking question? I'm talking about the step-back-a-moment kind of question. All the time? Twice a week? Never? Less thought-provoking questions are asked every day—multiple times.

And truthfully, there's nothing wrong with routine conversations or general questioning. An issue arises if "general" is the extent of what we ask or get asked in a day. Potential is lost. Deeper, more deliberate questions have the power to bring relationships, and our work, to another level.

Deeper questions uncover more meaning. For example, during a one-on-one conversation, asking about the "what, why, when, and how" can expand possibilities. Instead of just discussing the logistics of the plan, ask, "How does this actually improve our process? Why do we want to make this change? What are the implications? In what ways does this improve our relationship with our client or each other?"

Fierce conducted a survey on employee-supervisor relationships titled Horrible Bosses, and we found 80% percent of respondents who reported a good employee-supervisor relationship claim that the most important thing a boss can do to create a positive working relationship is to both solicit and value their input.

Soliciting and valuing input, which ultimately creates connection, does not come to fruition by superficial interaction—it is propelled by poignant, thought-provoking questions.

The next time you prepare to ask a question, consider how you can rephrase it to dig deeper and create more intention.

3.  Ask, "What else?"

In our coaching model, we instruct you to ask, "What else?" at least 3 times throughout a conversation. Each time you ask, you are going deeper into the initial question. You are exploring new territory. The need to ask, "What else?" is everywhere.

For example, think about when someone asks you, "How's it going?" How do you usually respond?

When I ask people this, the initial answer is usually very surface. Examples: Work is busy but good. Family is good. Vacation was good. This conversation is always different when I ask, "What else?" after they give me the first ceremonial answer. Only after the "what else" does something juicier come out. It is almost like "what else" translates to, "No, really, I want to know."

Concentrate on where you can ask, "What else?" It is only two words, after all…

4.  Ask for feedback.

How much feedback are you currently receiving from your employees?

My guess would be not enough. And if that is true, you need to ask. The higher up you are in the organization, the more removed you may be from how you are really doing from others' perspectives.

The world is constantly changing around you. An important employee leaves your team. A key client shifted their entire plan. A new company launches to compete with your core product. Your computer crashes. All before noon. Big or small fluctuations happen every minute of the day. Leaders must be able to track the trends with their teams and organizations. Feedback is important data in our daily lives, so we need to solicit input about our own performance.

Don't wait for feedback, and don't just give it. Now is the time for you to open doors. Schedule time on your calendar to ask for input from the people most critical to your success. Recognize that your employees may test if you really want the honest truth, so it is important to remain curious and grateful for whatever you receive in order to gain trust and build a foundation for continuous feedback.

5.  Resolve outstanding conflicts.

In our Fierce training, the confrontation model is typically the first module people want to know about. No office, no life for that matter, is without conflict, and it can be a challenging thing to maneuver.

If there is conflict taking place within your organization, this can be a good thing. If there is discord, it probably means people are challenging each other's ideas and speaking up. Conflicts only become a problem when there is a rupture and then the conflict lingers without repair, which is why it's important for leaders to know how to address behavioral and attitudinal issues.

Conflicts aren't always dramatic, over-the-top blow-outs. You may be having a subtle issue that's preventing a work relationship from flourishing, such as a messy conversation you have yet to clean up (some tips here), or a lingering tension between yourself and someone else.

The cost for keeping conflicts unresolved is large for your company and yourself. The most poignant takeaway the first time I went through Fierce Confrontation was this: It is not the conversation we have that should alarm us—it's the ones we don't have that should scare us to our core.

So, what can you move to resolve?

Get to Talking

Start your year off on the right foot and have the conversations central to success. Implement these simple tips to help bring your culture to life and engage the people around you.

Want to empower your people to have productive, results-driven conversations? In our whitepaper on employee productivity and engagement, discover 6 strategies to align your strategic initiatives and talk about what's most important right now. Free download.

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