Creating Space for Authentic Conversation


After writing last’s week’s post Change starts with you and me. It’s time to speak up. I’ve been thinking more about our ability to engage in authentic and courageous dialogue. In regards to last week’s post one person commented, "Conversation, sounds like a relic from a time and place far far away…” It’s time for us to dust off the relic and like all things vintage, bring it back into style.

In 2015, an Interact Survey asked over 600 managers what they found most difficult about communicating with employees. Some 37% of managers said they found it hard to give negative feedback to workers about their performance, 20% said they struggled to share their own vulnerability, and another 20% disliked being the messenger for company policies. But a full 69% of respondents said that they found “communicating in general” to be the hardest part about communicating with employees. No wonder 67% of US employees aren’t engaged at work.

Do you resonate with this struggle?

Here’s a brain twister for you. If 69% of managers found it difficult to communicate, how many of our team members find it difficult to communicate with us?

The importance of relating

For sustainable creativity, productivity and engagement at work; great leaders learn to have "power with" their team. This starts with knowing who you are working with. Let’s be honest, how much do you know about each person on your team? During interviews we learn about background, experiences, and skills; but not as much about who they are, their why, and values. An authentic conversation starts with a genuine interest in relating to and knowing the other person.

There are many reasons people want to lead, and it’s not always about the people. If you want to have an impact, you’ve got to make it about your team. If your team isn’t engaged you won’t get the best of their potential. Start by making a commitment to strengthen your relationship with each team member, getting to know more about them professionally and personally. Second, I’d recommend making a commitment to seeing the potential in each person and helping them to build their strengths. When you lead with the best intentions, it’ll build trust and engagement.

If your own manager committed to these two things, how would you feel about going into work each day?

The goal of conversation

Most conversation at work takes place over email and in meetings. We are constantly communicating information and asking questions. Isn’t that what communication is about, just relaying information? Let’s take our understanding a bit deeper to look at the why, the motivation to the communication. Behind every email and meeting, there is a need, a want, a desire. The more we can look beyond the surface communication and get to the need, to the why, we will be able to connect at a deeper level.  

The great thing about diversity is gathering different points of view. It allows us to be more creative and tap into new ideas. With diversity, we encounter differences, negative reactions, and sometimes disappointment and frustration. It’s easy to get into a debate with the goal of persuasion and what is right or wrong. What if the goal of the conversation is understanding and learning. It’s not about alignment, being on the same side, or agreeing. Conversation can then become about our deepest needs— to be seen, validate and understood. 

If you are stuck and don’t understand what someone needs, try these questions:

  • What’s most important about our conversation today?
  • What do you want me to know & understand?

Creating space for a great conversation

Be present & create space for conversation.

Our most valuable commodity is our time and energy. We rarely get focused time with our team. Demonstrate your commitment to strengthen your relationship and get to know each person by practicing being fully present for each meeting. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Don’t put your phone on the table, not even screen down. Having your device on the table will decrease your presence, the quality, and effectiveness of your conversation.
  • Schedule time to talk about things non-project/task related. Most meetings focus on a list of questions and project updates. Try a coffee meeting or walk and take time to learn about how your team member is doing, how engaged are they, learn about what motivates them, and what they want to do next. Use this time to build trust and also share about yourself.
  • This will seem like a risk and contradiction for some, if it does this may be a growing edge. When you aren’t present, share that you aren’t and that you really want to listen completely. Vulnerability builds trust, makes you human, and relatable. Often, when you speak a feeling and let it go, you are then able to move forward.

How much do you speak vs. listen?

I worked with one client to improve their influence and leadership style. I had the opportunity to observe them in meetings. After observing them for some time we had a conversation about their frustration that the team wasn’t more involved in meetings and sharing opinions. I had a hunch. For the next week, I asked them to observe in each meeting how much they spoke versus listened. They realized that they spent the majority of the meeting speaking. From there we were able to explore their purpose for speaking and to plan their speak vs. listen ratio based on the intent of the meeting.


Listening is an act of generosity and discovery. Given how many of us don’t speak up and find it difficult to communicate, making time for someone to speak and to truly listen is a gift. There are many articles on the skill of active listening. Here I’d like to mention some key practices.

First, be attentive and present. You don’t know if the person across from you is nervous or scared to talk to you. Make it a bit easier by being welcoming them, making them comfortable and showing some interest. The safer someone feels, the more they will be willing to share.

Second, attune to and reflect how this person is feeling and what they need. If you don’t know, just ask. How are you? How can I best support you in this conversation?

And third, be curious and ask clarifying questions to understand. In active listening, you are encouraged to summarize what you hear back to the person. This gives the other person the opportunity to hear what they said and clarify or deepen what they meant.

Here’s the most interesting thing about listening. Sometimes all someone needs is to be heard and understood. Nothing else needs to be done.

Using advocacy and inquiry to learn more

In conversation, we are usually listening, asking questions, or pitching ideas. In other words, we have two modes of communicating: inquiry and advocacy. We need to do both. Having an inquiry orientation allows you to be curious and learn more, especially when you ask open-ended questions that have more than a yes or no answer. While having an advocacy orientation allows the other person to learn more about you and your ideas.

A conversation that is 100% advocacy is helpful when you need to provide information and direction. While a conversation that is 100% inquiry is helpful when you want to get other points of view and learn more. And a conversation without advocacy and inquiry puts you 100% in observer mode.

If you want to deepen the exercise your inquiry into how much you speak vs. listen, ask how much of your speaking is inquiry or advocacy.

Deepening the conversation

For a difficult conversation, especially with different points of view, establish a vision. What’s important to you when you are done? That you are heard? That you share your point of view? That you hear the other person and their point of view? That you stay curious? Before a meeting try jotting down the top 3-5 things that are important. Also, write down some questions you’d like to ask. Below are some intriguing questions I’ve heard.

  • What’s most important right now? Sometimes it’s helpful to check in about the goal of the conversation. Often we get into heated debates, we get focused on sides and perspectives that we lose sight of the goal and what’s most important at the moment.
  • What is most important about the position you are taking? What values & concerns does it meet? Take time to better understand why you are taking the position you are. Let’s say you ask someone to work the weekend to get a project done. If the project isn’t due on Monday, maybe there is another solution. The team member may prefer to work late on Friday or put in more hours next week. If you can speak to the exact need or concern it allows for more flexibility in the how and what that’s part of the solution.
  • What is it in your own position that gives you trouble? What is it in the position of the other that you are attracted to? This is often a pivot point in a conversation. When we are willing to see what in our point of view isn’t working and what can be good in the other person’s position we open up new perspectives.
  • Where do you have doubts and concerns? Often conversations are about the details and what is right or wrong, this question allows us to look at the gray between positions and collaborate on new points of view.

In closing, let’s put this into action and practice. What is one piece of feedback or a conversation you’ve been putting off having? Many may come to mind. For this exercise, think of something that’s easier and lower risk. That way you practice and gain experience, without the pressure.

I commit to having the conversation with __________________ by ______________.  My intention for the conversation is to ___________.

  • I want to understand:
  • I want them to understand:
  • To accomplish this, my goal will be to speak _____ % and listen ______%
  • To accomplish this, Speaking how much Advocate vs. Inquire?
  • I want them to know:
  • I would like to know:

No matter what, this conversation will be a success because you are taking the risk and speaking up. Good luck! I’d love to hear if you learned something new or if you have a conversation and how it goes.



About the Author

Kim-Elisha Proctor is an Executive Coach, teacher, and writer. For over 15 years, she has worked with companies at all stages of growth and understands the complexity of organizations and leadership that is needed for success. Whether one-on-one coaching, with groups or delivering leadership development programs, her passion is the same: to support leaders to enhance their performance, impact, purpose & well-being to create communities they long to belong to.

Kim-ElishaLead Smarter