Revolutionize Your Workplace, One Conversation at a Time

Jan 24, 2019

By Jamie Showkeir, Maren Showkeir

Do you find it hard to have “real” conversations at work? Join the club. According to our company’s recent workplace survey, some 50% of workers—regardless of level or position—say they find it difficult to have open, honest conversations at their company. As a result, everyday conversations—the invisible driver of workplace culture and business success—are frequently manipulative and counterproductive and their true power is squandered.

The good news? You can choose to break through the status quo and create change—one conversation at a time. Traditional workplace conversations—up, down, and across an organization—foster parent-child type relationships. These relationships encourage people to hide facts and sugarcoat realities and create feelings of helplessness. In new conversations—based on an adult-adult model—participants tell the truth, let go of the illusion of control, and recognize that each person “owns” his or her own motivation.

Here are 10 ways you can take the lead and create change—one authentic conversation at a time:

  1. Have a point of view. Develop an informed, independent viewpoint about the topic at hand. Have a strong voice, but be open to others’ perspectives, too.
  2. Focus on choice. Need to be right or do everything your way? Get over it. Leadership—formal or informal—is no longer defined as “having the right answers,” but as an ability to engage others in considering all the choices and finding the best solution.
  3. Raise difficult issues. It’s not easy to bring up a hard subject or, still, be the one who acknowledges the “elephant in the room” and concentrates on resolution.
  4. Extend goodwill. Approach others as allies—not adversaries. Choose to convey goodwill—despite any existing stress or strain—and manage your emotions.
  5. Take the other side. Try arguing the other person’s point of view. You’ll help people feel heard and understood, and get to the heart of collaboration.
  6. Own it. Resist the urge to finger point when things go wrong. Publicly identify your own contribution to the problem.
  7. Deny denial. Denying or downplaying difficulties is dishonest and demeaning. Address the truth of a situation—the cold, hard facts—and invite others to join you in moving forward.
  8. Confront cynicism. Beware the cynics, victims, and bystanders. Sure, they’re everywhere in the workplace, but if you’re clear on where you stand, you needn’t pour your energies into winning them over—just invite them to make their own choices instead.
  9. Deal with resistance. Turning a blind eye to resistance won’t make it disappear. Learn to see it, call it out, and deal with it.
  10. Process. When a conversation takes a turn for the worse, stop and “process” what’s happening. Admit you’re at an impasse, make a good-faith statement, and ask for help.

The above strategies will enable you to stop playing the parent and to let others take responsibility for their own feelings. Encourage everyone—co-workers, direct reports, and even the boss—to deal with their own emotions and to let go of the childlike hope that somebody else will come along to make it “all better.”

Sooner or later, a difficult issue requires a difficult conversation. At work, as in life, how you choose to engage the other person is up to you. While authentic conversations don’t follow a script, if you truly want to be honest and show goodwill, a general outline can be helpful.

The following steps will make a difficult conversation easier:

  • State the reason for the conversation. “As I see it, we’re here to talk about the current circumstances with sales and distribution. The relationship between the two departments seems antagonistic, and our own relationship feels difficult, too.”
  • Express your desire to work things out. “My reason for getting us together is to figure out a way we can make things work.”
  • Identify the issue clearly and directly—without judgment. “From my viewpoint, your concern is that sales makes unrealistic promises to customers and then puts undue pressure on you and others in distribution to fulfill them. In addition, you and I have lost contact. We rarely meet anymore, and when we do meet, I feel tense and uncomfortable.”
  • Own your contribution. “My contribution to this situation is clear. I’ve been pushing everyone to ‘sell, sell, sell’ without regard to fulfillment. I’ve seen that as your problem in distribution—not my problem in sales—and I’ve also blamed you for not coming to me early on.”
  • Ask for participation and help. “I really want your help in working this out. You may feel that I caused this mess and now I’m coming to you because there is no other alternative. I can understand if you feel that way. Having said that, I still want to work this out together.”
  •  Seek out the other person’s viewpoint. “What are your thoughts on trying to resolve these issues—not only between our two departments, but in our own relationship?”
  • Shift responsibility by asking how the other person wants to proceed. “It sounds like you think that sales is at fault and that you are still angry with me. How do you think we should proceed from here?”

Change is never easy, but once you commit to improving the quality of conversations in your workplace, you’ll be amazed at the results. One person truly can make a difference.

About the Author(s)

Jamie Showkeir and Maren Showkeir are coauthors of Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment (Berrett-Koehler, 2008). They are partners of Henning-Showkeir & Associates, a business consultancy specializing in workplace culture. Contact them on the Web at