Suntiva Guided Conversations

How Guided Conversations Can Help Leaders with Challenging Topics and Result in Positive Actions


2020 has been a challenging time for many reasons — COVID-19, telework, racial tensions, to name a few. During difficult times, leaders must be front and center, and address issues head-on to build organizational resilience. Staff members look to their leaders to show them how to navigate times of uncertainty and change. Being there for your staff members in challenging times is one of the most important things you can do to build team resilience and cohesiveness.

“…Leaders may not be able to change the world, but they can certainly change their world.”Robert Livingston, Harvard Business Review

When leaders fail to address what is going on around them, they risk appearing out of touch with reality and their team. And, when leaders don’t speak up, people will create their own reasons for the silence.

One strategy for moving forward in a positive way and building resiliency is for leaders to engage in two-way conversations with staff about the impact of COVID-19, telework, social equity, justice, diversity and inclusion. In order for these discussions to be effective, they should be structured, guided conversations with a focus on asking open-ended questions and listening.

Benefits of guided conversations

When employees feel their supervisor cares for them, they are more positive and productive, and morale and retention increase. Creating a safe space for staff to be open and honest about what they feel, think and perceive without retaliation is an essential part of a resilient, diverse and inclusive organization. But many times, leaders’ concerns about saying the wrong thing and making matters worse or creating a perception of just checking the box gets in the way. And, frequently, leaders decide doing nothing is better than doing it wrong.

Face-to-face — in-person or virtually

Ideally, it’s best to have these conversations in person, but they can be conducted effectively with video conferencing tools. All participants should be highly encouraged to use the video feature. It’s important for participants to see each other, whether it’s just a leader and one staff member or a whole group using the gallery view. In advance of the call, leaders should communicate the logistics, time frame and norms, such as the facilitator being able to speak without interruption to guide the conversation, and each participant also being able to speak without interruption.

Tips for one-on-ones and team meetings
  1. Be well-prepared.
    Schedule time to think about what you want the purpose of the conversation to be — what you want to get out of the conversation and what you want your staff to get out of the conversation. Craft clear, sequential and open-ended questions to guide the conversation and encourage responses of differing perspectives, such as:
  • What things are you doing to manage work and life during these uncertain times?
  • What challenges are you facing as you continue to work remotely or start to work onsite?
  • What impact is the current racial tension having on you and your ability to work?
  • What can I do to make this a safe space to have discussions about these issues?
  • How can I support you?
  • What could be a helpful next step or potential action item?
  • What do you take with you as a result of this conversation?
  1. Communicate with your staff.
    Let your team know that you want to have a conversation with them to check on their well-being and allow them to share their ideas regarding what the organization can do to support them. Let them know that participation is voluntary, and they can opt-out either before or at any time during the conversation.
  1. Set the rules for engagement.
    As a leader, you need to provide a safe way for people to express themselves while still maintaining respect for all involved by ensuring participants adhere to the rules of engagement, some of which are:
  • Listen actively and generously by being fully present and suspending judgment and interpretations.
  • Ask open-ended questions from a place of curiosity.
  • Before you ask a question, ask yourself – how would I feel if I were on the other end of this question?
  • Have empathy by genuinely wanting to discover how others see the world and by trying to put yourself in their shoes.
  • Give grace – it’s okay that people are not feeling okay.
  • Maintain the confidentiality of this dialogue.
  • Seek understanding, not convincing.
  • Assume the best intentions from all involved.
  1. Manage your emotions.
    Anticipate what might be difficult for you and how you will remain in control of your emotions throughout the conversation, display empathy, and be open to points of view that differ from yours. Things to reflect on before the conversation are your own hot buttons and sensitivities and any positive or negative beliefs you have learned about interacting with others who are different from you.
  2. Manage others’ emotions.
    Difficult conversations can generate strong emotions. Speak slowly, directly and calmly — people tend to match each other’s volumes, pace and tone. If someone sheds tears, don’t leap to the rescue — sometimes silence is a powerful tool to make a point of the burdens some colleagues carry. If the conversation gets out of control, you can always say, “Why don’t we take a break and reconvene at another time.”
  3. Don’t try to have all the answers.
    During difficult conversations, leaders may feel the pressure to have all the answers — but it’s very reasonable not to and better to admit that you don’t. You can say, “I have to admit, I don’t know what the answer to that question is,” or “All I can do is speak for myself,” or “What do others think?”
  4. Access coaching and facilitation.
    One-on-one coaching for guided conversations can equip you with the tools and resources you need to feel confident and informed. Having a team meeting or virtual session run by an experienced facilitator can be very productive and result in a plan for making changes and moving forward. Suntiva has been helping government clients for years with diversity and inclusion coaching and training, and more recently, on COVID-19, telework, social equity and justice. If you’re ready to help your people feel supported and heard, and enable your team to make positive progress and advance the organization’s mission, contact us today.

Written by Sandra Tibbs