The value of good conversation

If you take off your headphones and listen to people on a commuter train it is striking how much people talk about their feelings when at work. Whether they are discussing a colleague they have a problem with, reflecting on how drained a work trip left them or excitedly recounting a good client meeting, people explore their emotions and experiences at work in conversation with others.

From a happiness perspective, the challenge is that these conversations are not happening in the right place or in the right way.

Conversations on the commuter train are often too safe, encouraging people to ruminate rather than respond. People are not challenged to examine the situation, nor make changes for the better. Conversations at the office can feel unsupportive, encouraging withdrawal rather than interaction. Conversations about happiness at the leadership level can meet resistance. Dismissal masks a nervousness to talk about something as fundamental as happiness.

Ultimately, it is a big deal to have definitive numbers on whether your team and colleagues enjoy working for and with you. So, what does a good conversation about happiness sound like?

Safe, supportive and challenging spaces

Effective conversations encourage exploration of the contexts, decisions, behaviours and relationships affecting happiness. As facilitators, we see it as our job to set the emotional parameters for a space that enables this sort of exploration: spaces that feel safe, supportive and challenging.

Synthesising learning from how these conversations typically go with our varied clients, the pointers we emphasise most are:

  • Seek to understand – rather than persuade
  • Listen to the quieter ones – they often hold the truth
  • Your view matters – especially if you are the only one who holds it
  • ‘But’ shuts down conversations – ‘and’ opens them up
  • Share the insights you arrive at with more colleagues – to validate your thinking

Questions that give structure to group analysis

Our next task is to help employees make sense of happiness data with framing questions that invite people to share, extend and then harmonise thinking. We ask employees to organise in groups of 5-10 to answer:

  • What do you notice about your happiness?
  • What is the story behind the data?

As conversations get underway, we steer them towards two sorts of insights:

  • Clear links between happiness causes and effects
  • Further questions where explanations are hard to pin down

This approach encourages employees to broaden their thinking, blending instincts with fully formed ideas to arrive at coherent explanations.

To harness the energy that flows from collective learning, we find it is often good timing to ask employees to choose the insight they want to convert into their first happiness challenge. We encourage them to cast their vote with two things in mind:

  • Will responding to the insight drive us toward a happier workplace?
  • Does this challenge allow for a variety of solutions, given the group’s constraints?

Optimum challenges are desirable and possible. Employees feel excited to tackle them.

Common challenges and ways round them

It is a human tendency to gravitate towards what we want to fix and forget to celebrate what we have. This makes it easy for discussions to become overly negative, narrowing focus around problems. This is limiting because organisations can’t use their strengths to leverage solutions to challenges. So, encourage employees to notice good scores as well as poor ones.

Assumptions in thinking get challenged by patterns in our feelings. Because happiness data is about people’s experiences rather than their desires or expectations, conversations can reveal uncomfortable truths. As facilitators, our job is to hold the space that allows employees to understand cognitive-emotional disconnects and work through why they have different emotional responses to the same issue. If participants do not willingly fill the space with reflections, ideas or suggestions, a good response is to ask people to discuss in smaller groups or pairs. And then encourage feedback from these discussions to the wider group to continue the conversation.

Unexpected value

It doesn’t feel especially ground-breaking to tell organisations that they need to become more skilful at having good conversations. And, yet, once our clients have participated in one of our conversations about happiness, they realise how different the experience is. “This was a different quality of conversation to the kind we ever have” or “already I feel I have lots of paths I can follow with this” are the sorts of feedback we get.

Our clients expect to learn something new from happiness data. It provides new information about businesses and the people that drive their success. What they don’t expect is the depth of insight that comes from granting employees the permission to discuss how they feel about their jobs while at work, in the company of colleagues who can actually help make a difference.

Jody AkedJody has been improving lives with applied behavioural science for over twelve years and helps our clients kick-start positive change from the boardroom to the factory floor. Jody has vast experience consulting with a diverse range of organizations both public and private, and developed the Five Ways to Well-being alongside Nic, which went on to form the foundation of public health advice across the globe.

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