Improve wellbeing by becoming ‘conversationally intelligent’

More productive conversations can reduce conflict and enhance wellbeing

Workplace conversations happen all the time of course, but “good” conversation – talking that makes change happen or calms conflict – is a real skill that often needs to be learned. As one NHS trust found, equipping managers with better conversation skills has also helped to cut absence and sickness levels, explains Rebecca Foreman.

Workplace conversations aren’t in a healthy state. As the basis of our day-to-day experience and workplace relationships, conversations are fundamental to wellbeing, how we cope with stress and the rollercoaster of organisational life.

While work technologies and management have evolved over the past hundred years or so of working together in formal environments like offices, our ability to have “good” conversations hasn’t moved on.

Workplaces continue to depend on maintaining a professional persona, on caution in terms of what we can say to whom, of avoiding disagreement and admissions of mistakes or weaknesses wherever possible, avoiding risks and difference of any kind. Conversations are stilted and limited.

There is often a lack of openness and trust, and that can lead to festering worries, confusion, grievances and a lack of a sense of control.

Therefore, we need more “conversational intelligence” among both managers and employees – better conversation skills that equip us to be both resilient and adaptable, to appreciate the benefits of different views, different people.

Rather than bringing about an improvement in conversation, digital forms of communication have, if anything, made things worse. There is now less face-to-face interaction, more informality, more recourse to direct, blunt forms of messaging. Many of the long-established traditions of behaviour – subtle codes of manners and deference, of implicit trust and nuanced conversations – have been swept away.

NHS Lothian’s ‘Courage to Manage’ project

NHS Lothian employs 24,000 staff in providing services to the second largest residential population in Scotland, around 850,000 people living in Edinburgh, Midlothian, East Lothian and West Lothian.

It runs all the primary, community-based and acute hospital services. In addition to the stresses posed by providing support to locals facing illness and trauma, NHS Lothian has been working on a programme of modernisation to provide a single integrated health system, requiring an acceleration of both change and team-working.

As part of this, the trust found that a significant proportion of its HR, management and staff time was spent on managing issues arising under “people management” policies. Digging deeper into the nature of these issues, it became clear that many had their root in a lack of open, honest dialogue in the early stages of conflict. Problems were being stored up and then being expressed in an inappropriate manner, affecting the work environment and levels of stress.

NHS Lothian wanted to create a different model for handling all types of conflict wherever they occurred – from straightforward differences of opinion and perspective, different working practices to clashes of personality – by enabling a new culture across the organisation.

New channels and platforms were needed in order for problems to be dealt with more quickly – and at lower levels of management. Beyond the important benefits to the workings of teams and the performance of the organisation as a whole, it is teams with high levels of mental wellbeing and resilience that are in a position to offer the best possible care and improve patient outcomes.

With this in mind, a core element of the HR and organisational development strategy and values work was the acknowledgement of a need for an improved management capability and confidence in dealing with challenging issues.

We at CMP Resolutions were used to set up and establish a new in-house mediation service by upskilling managerial staff in handling difficult conversations and training key staff as internal mediators.

The service was based around our model of “interactive mediation”, or the idea that people in conflict need to interact directly with one another in order to restore communication, rebuild relationships and resolve the issues that are in dispute. Under this model people are invited to say what they need from one another, and really hear one another, rather than say what they think of one another. The quality of interaction from the mediator to the parties is crucial.

A cohort of 65 managers was selected to participate in a “Courage to Manage” programme, blended between e-learning and classroom training in order to work within the tight schedules of managers.

Each participant received developmental and motivational coaching from experienced mediation practitioners around their skills and use of the process. The training was intensive and tailored to the NHS environment, working practices and culture in terms of the typical demands and stresses on staff. It included carefully set-up and assessed role plays and interactive small group exercises.

The programme equipped staff to understand the impact of their own behaviour on conflict; build and sustain rapport in difficult situations with colleagues and patients; think and feel more positive about intervening effectively in conflict situations; build confidence around managing difficult conversations; and deal more effectively with issues associated with perceptions of inequality, bullying and harassment.

Factors that contributed to the successful launch of the service included:

  • running a rigorous and inclusive recruitment process to ensure that the best individuals were selected for mediator training;
  • providing mediation awareness sessions to key stakeholders within the organisation, such as union representatives and HR professionals;
  • delivering taster sessions on conflict resolution skills to a range of people in management roles;
  • establishing a robust support structure for the service, including the appointment of a part-time mediation co-ordinator, and building in a mediation evaluation process;
  • positioning the mediation service in the context of broader organisational change objectives;
  • identifying a professional mediation partner to call on in the event of a senior level or highly complex conflict; and
  • putting in place post-training mediator support and development activities, to ensure the momentum wasn’t lost after the initial training, and mediator skills continued to be developed.

In the two years following the end of the initial programme, NHS Lothian has seen a referral rate to the new service of at least two or more mediations each month. A total of 94% of these has resulted in an agreement between the parties – so more than 50 issues resolved which might have led to more serious and formal interventions or tribunals.

As an indication of the effect on workplace culture in general, there have been falls in the number and length of sickness absences. From a management perspective there has also been a reduction in the amount of time needed for managing conflict situations, both formal and informal, due to increases in skill levels and decreases in formal processes, estimated at a saving of more than 100 days in the first 16 months of operation.

In terms of a tangible return on investment, the trust undertook an audit at the start of the project and then again after 18 months. This showed that the financial ROI achieved through the mediation and ‘Courage to Manage’ interventions as being £2.32 for every
£1 spent.

Creating a ‘clear air’ workplace

A healthy environment for conversations is a solid platform for better dealing with, and supporting, employees struggling with mental health and stress-related conditions. This kind of “clear air” workplace is one where teams have trusting relationships, where people appreciate and respect individual differences and opinions.

Better conversations lead to improved relationships and wellbeing, greater acceptance of diversity, better decision-making and problem-solving, more creativity.

The wider issue is one of the difference between values and behaviours. When there is a gap between the values of an organisation and actual behaviours demonstrated by employees, the resulting space is filled with confusion, misunderstandings, tensions and conflict. The more aligned the two are, the closer to the organisation is getting to an everyday environment where problem-solving is free-flowing and innovation is instinctive.

In conclusion, in order to create a “clear air” workplace, organisations need to:

  • Identify the basic strengths and weaknesses of current provision in terms of what happens to complaints, whistleblowing, complaint handling, grievance resolution, performance management, absence management and the relevant learning and development. For example, do you have a continuum of options for people to get support when matters do escalate? Does everyone agree to try and resolve matters at the most local, informal level possible?
  • Assess the gap between values and behaviours in the organisation by measuring the behavioural competency of their teams or functions. Once there has been training or other forms of learning, this gap can be re-assessed to demonstrate progress over time, whether and how levels of conversational intelligence are being embedded.
  • Put more resources into supporting people away from escalating their negative feelings, and towards dialogue with each other. Some managers have the inbuilt skills to manage conflict constructively. Others will need support if they are to have difficult or courageous conversations. Review your management programmes to ensure they include the soft skills involved in embracing positive conflict and defusing negative conflict.
  • Support and train your managers to deal with formal complaints and grievances consistently and fairly. When conflict reaches the formal stages of a grievance or disciplinary hearing it’s critical that the decision-makers involved (typically senior managers) are always consistent and untainted by subjective perceptions.
  • Motivate and train employees to have difficult conversations with each other and with their manager, for example in how to challenge colleagues’ banter or perceived manager’s bullying. These are skills that can be expanded to include how they respond to difficult situations with the full range of stakeholders working with a department.
  • Make sure there are consistent messages about expectations of line managers and their staff in terms of encouraging open conversations – and make it clear about support and development available.



About Rebecca Foreman

Rebecca Foreman is director of operations at workplace relationship development, conflict, management and dispute resolution provider CMP Resolutions
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