A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue – Truman Capote.

Is your internal communication department a broadcasting agency or a dialogue factory? Be honest about this. How many communicators spend more time creating content than sourcing it? I’ve noticed a trend in communication departments I’ve interacted with that they are so focussed on the outputs they need to achieve, that the purpose of communication gets lost. Why spoil a good story with facts or personal insights, right?

When communicators measure outputs (instead of results), they are often so busy chasing the deadlines that they rarely stop to listen, evaluate and understand their purpose. In my audits and implementation of solutions, the focus is always on people, process and results, not media, message and outputs

I have spent a lot of time thinking about this trend, trying to figure out why we are so afraid to have conversations. Here of some of my conclusions and tips to move closer to a workplace where dialogue is simply the way we do things.

The cause: The Fear Factor

“I believe that words are strong, that they can overwhelm what we fear when fear seems more awful than life is good.” ― Andrew SolomonThe Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression 

I sense an enormous amount of fear when dealing with leaders and communicators around having bold and much-needed conversations with their employees and team members. Maybe it is because truth is not always high on the agenda, and because there are so many different agendas. Maybe it is because we simply don’t do enough to understand each other’s worlds. We fear what we don’t know. I always notice how fear retreats when we start the audit process and proceed to solutions that are not nearly as threatening as we imagined they would be. In our minds, we always go to the worst place, yet we rarely end up there in reality.

My life coach, the Fairy Godmother Donna McCallum, is an expert on fear and how it keeps you away from realising your personal goals. She knows that fear is often the only thing that stands between dreamers and their goals. When you move beyond fear, you move into fabulousness. I chatted to her about how this translates into the workplace. Donna confirmed my opinion that fear drives the lack of conversation in the workplace.

On the question why people are afraid to openly communicate in a work environment, Donna says: “People are more interested in their job security and comfort than they are in being a contributor to the bigger picture. They fear losing their jobs. So even on this level, fear drives whether they will put themselves out there for a conversation or not. People in companies would rather skirt around issues than to be honest, because they fear they will lose their income. This propagates a culture of everyone covering their own asses and bcc-ing other people in all communication, leading to total inefficiency!”

A communicator’s arsenal should include tools to assist people to overcome fear (the definition of insanity is after all doing the same thing and expecting a different result). You have to be brave on behalf of other people and keep pushing, sometimes gently (the Fairy Godmother calls this wand-nudging), other times more forcefully (this she calls wand-whacking!) until your people are ready to overcome their fears.

DevCom has travelled the road of change with so many clients in the past eight years. One of the main questions we help answer is: “How do we move from one-way communication to a balanced conversation?” Here are a few practical tips you can start implementing today:

1.       Listen – your mother was right, you have two ears and one mouth

“The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard.” ― William HazlittSelected Essays, 1778-1830

The absolute magic that comes out of a proper communication audit process that is focussed on people and process (not media and message, ie, traditional channel audits) is priceless. It leaves me trembling with excitement every time, even though I have been through the process more than 40 times already. When you zoom in on who you are talking with every day, and get to know them through a listening (audit) process, you will be surprised at how simple the issues are. The trick is using the right auditing process, focussing on what will add business value while increasing employee engagement and figuring out how to sustain the two-way communication trough the right processes. Then you can move from listening into dialogue – a continuous stream of conversation.

2.       Really get to the bottom of things.

I don’t know what he means by that, but I nod and smile at him. You’d be surprised at how far that response can get you in a conversation where you are completely confused.” ― Jodi PicoultHouse Rules.

Stop nodding and smiling today. Make a real connection, and get to the bottom of things. You might step on some toes in the process, but ask forgiveness quickly. Relationships built on bullshit are stinky, not solid. If you don’t get to the real issues, you will always have to start over again. It never ceases to amaze me how many companies claim to not have the budget to do the right thing, but they always have time and money to redo the work.

3.       Use dialogue tools to facilitate the conversation.

Not every manager in your business is a master conversationalist.  And often those with the gift of gab don’t really know as much as their confident verbosity suggests.  The solution is to create dialogue tools that will allow your audience to contribute to the conversation in a meaningful manner. Three of the tools we use with huge success are:

3.1 Give us your picture, then share your words.

“Clearly she was expected to say something, but panic at having to speak stole the thoughts from her head.” ― Shannon HaleThe Goose Girl

Some people just don’t have the words to express themselves. When we do focus groups, or sometimes just in client conversations and training, we give people old magazines and ask them to find a picture that explains how they relate to a concept. This technique gives people a way to express their understanding, thoughts and feelings. As an example, unions and companies often sign a “recognition agreement”. When you ask people to choose a picture that explains their perception of the word recognition, the disconnect between what is meant in the agreement context and how people interpret it, is revealed. No wonder conversations around such concepts ever reach a solid conclusion. Use this technique to test how your audience understand the significant terms you use in your company communication. The feedback also gives you TESTED visual concepts to use in future campaigns. Just do the maths on how much you save by creating meaningful dialogue tools

3.2 The report is the start, not the end!

Using the audit report as a starting point for conversations is one of the best techniques ever. Instead of filing the report once the executives had seen the summary, use the report to talk to the participants. Respect them enough to share with them how you have heard them. Use their words to start the dialogue process. Dust off those old reports you never used and get to it!

3.3 Visuals maps explain more than you can imagine.

But they are not magic in themselves. The process of getting to a visual map is critical, and you have to make your audience part of the process. Through explaining people understand, and through understanding people lay down fear and move towards purpose. When you have a complex environment, creating a map to guide conversations is a brilliant tool to empower your team with. We have used this technique successfully with many organisations.

The bottom line, communicators, is that we cannot sit in our offices and do our jobs. We have to get out there and work with our people to develop processes to ensure that everyone can participate in ground-braking conversations. Even the most mundane conversations can connect people and unleash the power of communication, driving a team of connected individuals to achieve more. 

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