Self-awareness, the need for emotional intelligence and empathy have always been vital in building relationships, developing teams, collaborating with colleagues and supporting or helping others.
In recent years, the COVID pandemic and the move to a more virtual workspace have made the challenge of effective conversations harder for a lot of people, as they try and convert challenging conversations into transformative ones; in particular, emotional and social clues can be missed on screen. This is even more challenging in the light of us all trying to better understand how issues of diversity and bias can impact the way we communicate and collaborate in an inclusive way.
In the Transformative Conversations Programme, we explore many types of conversation, for example; conversations across ‘aspects of difference’; feedback conversations; conversations about inclusion; performance conversations and conversations about Wellbeing.
Why do we aim to cover such a wide range of conversations? It is only through playing out the breadth of different types of conversation that many of us have day in and day out that we can develop the self-awareness and confidence to tackle them. These can range from creating safe, inclusive physical environments that provide a sense of belonging around facilities such as changing rooms, prayer rooms, breast feeding spaces etc., supporting academic colleagues in the delivery of education or engaging with the student union about freedom of speech and academic freedom matters.
A previous participant of the programme said, “The course has taken away my fear of these types of conversations”.
In my governance and leadership work, in recent culture reviews, for example, I have noticed that conversations across ‘aspects of difference' can be a particular challenge. Whether that is between professional service and academic colleagues, between internal and external partners, or conversations with and including marginalised groups of staff and/or students, it is important that we get these conversations right. Two examples are:
- Ensuring that the process for disclosing racial harassment does not compound the trauma already experienced, and
- Recognising signs of imposter syndrome in those with whom you are having a conversation so that you can make it a safer space to have a better dialogue.
We know that acknowledging and understanding other people’s experiences can help foster more positive relationships; and contribute to the creation of an organisation that is committed to building an inclusive culture – one which develops the skills and space to have respectful conversations about difference, and listens to and values the voices of marginalised groups. It does not shy away from conversations that might feel uncomfortable, instead, it is curious about where the discomfort comes from and what can be done to work through it.
In Transformative Conversation Programme, we also encourage the participants to have conversations with themselves, asking questions such as:
- How do issues of diversity affect the conversations that I am having and what unconscious bias might be present?
- What more do I need to understand about how this person is responding/reacting?
- What do I need to pay attention to in order to build trust?
We also spend time practicing reflective and generative questioning and encouraging participants to think about their agency in transforming conversations. In particular, our previous participants found the opportunity to “get other people's perspectives on things” really worked well for them and established that the programme “was an excellent opportunity to reflect on communication issues at work, and learn new strategies”.
Kim is joint Programme Director for the Transformative Conversations Programme and the Governance Professionals in HE Programme. She undertakes consultancy across leadership and governance, including culture reviews and she leads on a range of Advance HE member benefit themes including ‘Transforming Organisations from Student to Board’ and ‘Inclusive Institutions enabling and supporting culture change’.
Barbara is joint Programme Director for the Transformative Conversations Programme an executive coach and programme director for a number of Advance HE national and bespoke leadership development programmes, with over twenty years’ experience in higher education.