To retain talent, you need to know how to hold conversations

Employers of all kinds are experiencing unprecedented layoffs. While this phenomenon gets a lot of media attention, companies need to focus on retaining those who haven’t gone out yet.

Communication has always been key to creating an engaged, participatory and productive workplace culture. But in today’s peculiar and idiosyncratic economy, with such unprecedented labor movement, a different approach is warranted to discourage people from seeking greener pastures elsewhere. Executives at large, remote companies have pointed out that communication is part of everyday life for many knowledge workers.

Understanding the concerns, wants and needs of today’s workforce requires a special kind of facilitated Conversation, a style that most managers and supervisors rarely incorporate into their leadership style but must learn if employee retention is the goal.

Interactive, moderated conversations with employees can keep communication channels open and show that management is engaged. They ensure that employees have everything they need to do their best work and that their social and emotional concerns are taken into account. A moderated conversation is well thought out and planned, but open in relation to its outcome. It depends on serious questions aimed at understanding rather than directing or persuading. “Facilitation” comes from the word “facile” and means “to make easy”. After all, that is the goal: a relaxed conversation without hassle. It is a guided conversation to an unknown goal, in which the employee experiences security, authentic interest and a willingness to understand. A facilitated conversation requires training, planning, self-disclosure, careful probing and follow-up.

Elements and applications of facilitated communication

Educating and educating managers and supervisors on how to use facilitated conversations is often the first item to fall from the budget at times of difficulties and disruptions that can impact a workforce. This is unfortunate as in these times leaders need all the extra skills they can learn and muster. So, the decision to add moderated conversations to an organization to increase employee retention requires careful preparation on the part of senior management. Giving them specific education and training from experts is even better – but not being able to do this should not be an excuse for business as usual.

Once managers have learned and practiced facilitating conversations, they can begin the planning process with their employees. There are a few key elements to facilitating the exchange. For example, both the employee and the manager need a chance to think about their goals for the interview before even scheduling a meeting. Creating an agenda that includes open-ended questions can help stimulate thought. The aim of planning is not to act, but to generate thoughts. Giving employees paid time during the workday to think about it shows sincerity and underscores that it is just as important as their regular job.

Focused care and interest are key during the conversation. One way to do this is through leader self-disclosure to make the conversation more open, authentic, honest, and secure. A manager who shows vulnerability shows a willingness to acknowledge the difficulties that pretty much everyone has faced in the two years of COVID-19. It’s everywhere and affects everyone. But it can’t just be the manager. There needs to be just enough self-disclosure to provide a safe and authentic space for the employee to engage in.

Challenging probing questions are designed to elicit from employees what is wrong with them, what challenges they face and what they need to overcome them. Conserved or vague questions are not enough. Starting with specific, but light, open-ended questions allows and encourages employees to speak truthfully, although it may take a while to open up initially. It helps to use the planning results as a guide. It takes a special touch to carefully examine the answers instead of challenging them. This means listening carefully, thinking before responding, and striving to understand the employee’s perspective without judgment.

Ultimately, if employees are to feel that their needs and concerns are being taken seriously, someone must actually be empowered to take action to address those concerns. If employees don’t see action after the talks, their cynicism will only grow. Before these efforts begin, managers and supervisors must be empowered to make and follow up on decisions. If an issue simply cannot be resolved in the way an employee hoped, another moderated discussion may be appropriate. In this case, the manager should clearly explain the limitations related to the problem and the reasons for it. Transparency is crucial as it expresses trust. This opens up the possibility of discussing possible alternative solutions.

Facilitating conversations is an extremely effective way to identify and address pragmatic issues that may impact employees’ work. More importantly, they can help management identify issues related to employees’ social and emotional well-being. By using moderated conversations to cover the full spectrum of potential concerns, organizations can increase the engagement, motivation and therefore productivity of long-serving employees they want and need to retain and inspire.

Rebecca Weintraub is one Emeritus Clinical Professor of Communications and Emeritus Founding Director the online Master of Communication Management program at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Steven Lewis is an entertainment industry strategist and award-winning documentary filmmaker. Rebecca Weintraub and Steven Lewis are the co-authors of Unbelievable communicationwhich includes their combined experience and knowledge of the art of effective business communication. To retain talent, you need to know how to hold conversations


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