Strategies to Improve Dialogue in the Workplace
A 5 step process to navigate the treacherous task of improving adult conversations
While attending a Love and Logic conference advertised to provide positive parenting solutions, I discovered a powerful strategy to manage adult confrontations in the workplace. Once I discovered the effectiveness of the process, my job became easier.
When children misbehave, it is easy to redirect, discipline, and lecture. However, none of these responses teach children how to change their behavior or repair damaged relationships. Adults make similar mistakes; often unaware they have insulted a peer or created a contentious work environment. When employees identify and improve interactions, the energy of a supervisor can address more productive proceedings.
Though, sometimes, peer conflicts are easily remedied, they have the potential of becoming confrontational. Managers may feel like they are balancing on a high wire knowing that a misstep can lead to a catastrophic conclusion. I have sat across the table from employees who have valuable attributes but also demonstrate human flaws. My job description requires me to address and help them improve destructive behaviors.
The implementation of a five-step plan provides the framework for a dialogue that allows adults to increase awareness of what they say and prompts them to modify actions that damage a team’s productivity. With practice this process smoothly moves a conversation to identify problems and find simple actionable strategies to address conflicts
These simple, effective strategies helped me grow from a boss to a supportive mentor. Within the explanation of each stage of this process, examples illustrate what an observer would see and hear. This process empowers employees to control decisions while developing skills for future interactions. Mediating adult conflict can be uncomfortable. However, by asking questions, the dialogue can lead to resolution.
Step #1 — What was the inappropriate behavior?
Simple enough, name the problem.
During today’s meeting, there seemed to be a clash of ideas. What do you think may have caused this tension?
I interrupted Miss Anderson during the meeting, criticized her ideas and made it impossible to continue an open, non-threatening discussion.
Wouldn’t it be nice if during a discussion, problems were identified this easily? In fact, the first response when asked to identify a problem may be, “I don’t know.” or “I didn’t know there was a problem.” The leader should always remain nonjudgmental and not answer the question to not seem accusatory and not take ownership of the problem. Simply describe what occurred in factual terms and wait for the participant to identify the problem.
While Sue explained her plan to address customers’ concerns about long lines at the returns desk, she seemed to stop abruptly and then didn’t contribute again during the meeting.
Sue’s idea would have only increased the lines while my idea presented a remedy. However, I didn’t mean to interrupt her. It is such a busy day.
So, tell me what happened. The supervisor should use open, accepting body language: do not cross legs or arms, make eye contact, relax facial feature, and lean forward.
Before Sue finished explaining her ideas, I cut her off and shared my ideas. I imagine that made her uncomfortable.
Step #2 — Where and when did the problem occur?
Sometimes this information has already been shared but if not ask a clarifying question.
At what point do you remember the tone in the meeting changing?
During the meeting the team was discussing the best way to address customer’s complaints. When Miss Anderson started talking in the annoying voice and telling everybody that her ideas were best, I just blurted out . . .
Step #3 — Why was the behavior inappropriate?
How do you think this impacted the meeting?
As you said, Sue stopped talking for the rest of the meeting. I did not notice it then. Yes, I imagine my words were confrontive. I put her on the spot and didn’t provide an opportunity for her to finish her thoughts. I didn’t want to insult her in front of everyone, but my words came out before I stopped to think. Wow, she must have felt embarrassed.
Step #4 — How can you fix it the problem?
The next step can be a little tricky but worth the effort. Ask how the problem could be fixed. An appropriate “fix it” plan must 1. Be developed by the participant 2. Go beyond saying, “I’m sorry 3. State actions that are related to the behavior.
At first the discussion may abruptly halt. If the participant struggles with ideas to remedy the problem, ask if they would like some suggestion of what others have done. If they do, list multiple options. Make the list a brainstorm of anything possible. You may even throw in some bad ideas or use humor if appropriate. The goal is to provide ideas and then ask what they believe would be a good next step.
I observed similar situations. Would you be interested in what others have done?
Yes, I would like that.
- Some people have approached the peer, admitted they interrupted and ask to hear the rest of the idea.
- Some people apologize at the next meeting and then validate the original idea.
- Sometimes, an original idea can be revisited and instead of thrown out completely built upon.
- It can be valuable to ask clarifying questions to identify weaknesses in a plan and then offer suggestions
- Some people, after hearing an idea, provide praise for something positive and then offer suggestions for change.
Depending on the situation, it can be useful to list some of the options on paper. This prompts further discussion but also models how to apply the process to future problems. It seems in this day in age, people of all ages struggle with problem solving. In fact, after leading others through developing a fix-it plan, I have found myself applying the same steps to my own situation.
Step #5 — Decide on a plan for future conflicts
When adults address concerns, a comfortable closing is to discuss how things will change in the future and focus on expectations for behavior. Allow time to reflect on how discussions will change in the future.
Nobody wants to enter an uncomfortable environment at work. This process provides a strategy to address friction in the workplace in a manner that is respectful and allows an open dialogue of ideas. When conflict is addressed respectfully, all participants feel appreciated and a foundation is established for success.