Face-to-face communication remains the most important form of communicating – whether it occurs formally, as in a scheduled interview or disciplinary situation, or informally, as in a chance meeting in the car park or corridor. Cordial, cooperative discussions with employees ensure that their opinions are heard and provide a very effective means of obtaining information that will make your job much easier. The following approaches are worth considering…

1. Build trust and confidence.

Your initial aim must be to establish rapport by making employees feel comfortable in your presence and converse freely with you. Although there is no magic formula for creating that situation, authenticity and empathy are essential qualities – it’s OK to be yourself (apart from the fact that people are very quick to recognise incongruence, where physical and verbal messages contradict each other). A good starting point for any conversation is to get people talking about the most important persons in their lives – themselves.

2. Listen and be listened to.

Listening actively is hard work and is more than just not talking. Not only must you hear what the other person says but you must also convey understanding and interest through clarifying, summarising, paraphrasing, and reflecting feelings. Consider tailoring your conversations to your employees’ preferences – are they listeners or readers? ‘Listeners’ won’t read long written reports – they prefer to hear about them and the details, making a brief note to remind them if necessary. On the other hand, ‘readers’ have difficulty following a great deal of oral detail – they prefer to see it in black and white. So tell them the bare facts and leave your detailed message written out for digestion later.

3. Follow a successful formula.

The key to conducting a fruitful conversation involves the following:

  • Get to the point.
  • Get all the facts before reaching any conclusion.
  • Avoid using too much direct questioning; don’t cross-examine.
  • Don’t use verbal or facial cues that alert the listener to what is coming.
  • Keep your conversation factual and objective.
  • Confront issues, not people.
  • Slow down; instil confidence.
  • Lighten up. You can find humour in day-to-day events without being a comedian.

4. Practise conversation skills.

If you’re alert, you learn something new from every conversation if you practise these skills:

  • Call people by their names; it’s the word they most like to hear.
  • Ask questions; show interest; listen attentively.
  • Develop techniques for bringing conversations to a close: ‘Thanks again, Joan. I’ve enjoyed our chat. I’ll see you on Friday at 3.30.’
  • Maintain eye contact, but don’t stare. Research indicates that in a conversation the less assertive person often disengages eye contact first, usually after only a few seconds.
  • Use nonverbal invitations to encourage talking – nodding, eye contact, leaning forward, narrowing physical distance. It isn’t only what you say that registers but also how you say it.

5. Use clear, straightforward communication.

Clear, effective oral communication is more than not talking down to people. You must also:

  • eliminate space fillers like ‘um’ and ‘er’ and catchphrases like ‘you know’, ‘basically’, ‘in actual fact’, and ‘sort of thing’.
  • slow down, watching for signs of uncertainty and checking for understanding.
  • not talk too much. Even when you’re giving information, the other person needs at least 20 per cent of the air time. In other conversations do less than 50 per cent of the talking.

6. Keep the conversation going.

Use motivational phrases like ‘We’re here to solve this problem together’, ‘I’m concerned. I care about what happens to you’ and ‘I’m finding this chat very helpful’ to keep the conversation moving. Phrases like ‘Can you add anything else?’, ‘I’d like to hear more about that’, and ‘Do you see any problems with any of that?’ help to steer the conversation. Remaining silent is another way of keeping the conversation flowing.

7. Organise your thoughts.

Abraham Lincoln once said of an acquaintance, ‘He can compress the most words into the smallest ideas of any man I ever met’. So know what you want to say and say it. Keep a small notebook with you at all times, indexed with key persons’ names. In the notebook, jot down subjects you want to discuss with any of these people. Those jottings will act as memory joggers and others will be impressed by your knowledge and attention to detail. Make a note of the outcome of any discussion to remind you of any necessary follow-up.