4 Keys to Clear, Collaborative Workplace Conversations

July 29, 2019

At Elevate, Authenticity and Acceptance is one of our core company values, and part of living up to that value involves communicating honestly with our clients and with each other. But speaking up and communicating candidly requires skill.

According to a 2017 report on The State of Miscommunication by Quantum Workplace and Fierce Inc., only 52% of employees surveyed said that they always or almost always speak their minds when discussing work-related topics with their immediate supervisor; even fewer (just 47.5%) reported always or almost always speaking their minds when talking to their colleagues.

These numbers aren’t shocking, when you consider all that’s at play — and at stake! — when it comes to speaking up in a professional setting. Whether you’re reviewing tasks and deadlines with your manager, brainstorming ideas with your team, delivering feedback to a direct report, or weighing your concerns about a workplace issue, candor inherently involves risk.


It’s logical, then, that so many of us often mitigate that risk by choosing the path of least resistance. We either stay silent about our concerns, agree to take on more than our bandwidth allows, or simply go with the flow when the group is moving in a different direction.

The problem is, we often fail to consider the costs of silence.

  • When we agree to take on extra work without sharing that we already feel overstretched, we risk failing to deliver on our promises.
  • When we decide to stay quiet about a workplace concern, we risk missing an opportunity to have an important conversation that others secretly want to have, too.
  • When we fail to deliver constructive feedback because it’s too uncomfortable, we rob a colleague of their opportunity to learn and grow.

Thankfully, there are skills you can build to help you speak up and communicate candidly — and candid conversations don’t have to be fraught! In fact, when done thoughtfully, having these types of conversations more often at work helps increase productivity, build trust among colleagues, and enhance team performance.

The four tips below will help you speak up about important subjects in a way that’s both honest and clear, while still keeping things positive and setting a collaborative tone.

  • Use clear, direct language. This one seems obvious, and yet so many of us try to pad our message with things like apologies, over-explaining, or the dreaded ‘compliment sandwich.’ It may feel like you’re being helpful, when in fact you’re probably just creating more confusion. As they say in journalism, don’t bury the lede. Lead with your point, be clear, and resist the urge to dance around it.
  • Take responsibility for what you’re trying to say. Don’t be vague, and rely on the other person(s) to connect the dots for you. Be as clear as possible, and take full ownership of whatever it is you want to convey.
  • Ask questions. Before you dismiss or object to someone else’s idea directly, ask clarifying questions. Not only does this help you gather as much information as possible, it also demonstrates a willingness to engage with and fully understand their ideas.
  • Look for opportunities to respond with “and” instead of “but.” To be clear, I’m not saying that dissent is off the table! The main takeaway here is that using “and…” sets an amicable tone by showing respect for the other person’s point of view, even if you disagree. It sets the stage for a more productive dialogue, stronger collaboration, and better outcomes. For example: “I like that idea, and I recommend we make one adjustment.”
  • Be aware of your body language. Crossed arms and furrowed eyebrows send a ‘closed-off’ message, and typing on your phone or laptop while someone is talking to you signal that you’re not fully engaged in the conversation. Do your best to offer your full attention, respect, and focus.
  • Focus on what’s possible, instead of what isn’t. It’s hard (if not impossible) to have a productive conversation if you’re just shooting down ideas, without presenting any alternatives. I think Tina Fey said it best: “Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.”
  • Manage expectations proactively, and early. This involves looking at the conversation through the other person’s lens early in the conversation and looking for any possible information gaps, unspoken assumptions, or ambiguities. When it doubt, clarify.
  • Avoid the people-pleasing trap. As tempting as it can be to go with the flow or tell people what they want to hear, you’re better off painting a clear and honest picture about any obstacles, hesitations, questions, or needs you have and opening the door for honest discussion.
  • Deliver bad news as early as possible. Whether you’re running late on a deadline, or you need to ask for help, resist the urge to delay that uncomfortable conversations. (We might hope that’ll make it go away, when in fact it almost always makes things much worse.) Having that conversation early gives everyone more time to recalibrate, and come up with a new plan if necessary. I think of this as ‘front-loading the discomfort,’ knowing that it will pay off in the long run.
  • Suspend judgment, and get curious. Sometimes hard conversations get stuck, when everyone is locked into their own point of view and the group keeps talking in circles, without listening or making forward progress. Forbes calls this gridlock, adding that it “leads to defensiveness, criticism, withdrawal and in some cases contempt—four signs of a complete breakdown of communication.” One way to loosen gridlock? Shift from a judgmental mindset to a curious one, where you seek to understand the other perspectives in the room and find ways to connect them.
  • Use empathy to move the conversation forward. While many think of empathy as a “soft” skill, it can also be a secret weapon for having more productive, efficient conversations. When you’re stuck at an impasse with a colleague or team, consider questions like: what are their true, underlying objectives here? What can you suggest that meets those needs, without encroaching on your own bandwidth or boundaries? Don’t be afraid to think outside the box, and get creative. This gets easier with practice.


Below are a few resources we recommend, if you’re interested in learning more about candid conversations:

About the Author:

Michelle Anthony LaCroix