Conversations are at the heart of our relationships with others, be they colleagues, friends or family. Our ability to build masterful relationships with others, especially in the workplace, is linked to our ability to have conversations that are meaningful. Meaningful conversations have depth. They are conversations that connect individuals around common goals and values.

The problem for many of us today is that our conversations tend to be shallow, infrequent, rushed and increasingly of an electronic nature. Most of us in the workplace find ourselves overscheduled, double-booked and running from meeting to meeting. When we do have a break, we tend to go immediately to our BlackBerry, or other PDA of choice, to catch up on emails and voice mails.

This frenzied atmosphere on the job works against our ability to focus on building and sustaining one-on-one personal relationships. Some of us have even begun to see talking with one another as wasteful. Who among us has not sent the occasional email to someone right down the hall from us? Increasingly, we favor taking action and producing results over building meaningful staff relationships through meaningful connections and conversations.

So, how do leaders and managers promote meaningful conversations? Here are seven specific strategies available to leaders as they seek more meaningful conversations with colleagues, customers and others in their lives.

Create an environment of trust and mutual respect where all ideas are valued.

It is important to set and manage expectations regarding the types of behaviors you desire in your organization. Your employees naturally look to you as a model of what is tolerated and what is not when it comes to interacting with others in the workplace. When employees are allowed to violate values such as trust and respect, without consequence, a memorable message is sent that indicates your acceptance of such nonproductive behaviors. It also discourages others from speaking up when they experience the negative impacts of these bad behaviors. Leaders are in a unique position to give others permission to hold everyone accountable for treating others with trust and mutual respect. It is in this type of environment that meaningful conversations can thrive. Absent this environment, conversations will tend to be more reserved, tentative and shallow.

Model the use of open-ended questions.

Meaningful conversations occur when we invite others to really think about the questions we ask them. If our goal is to invite others to share their deepest thoughts, ideas and reflections with us, we must pay attention to the structure of our questions. Meaningful conversations are thwarted by the use of closed-ended questions, or questions that can be answered simply by a “Yes” or “No”. When we seek well-thought out responses, our questions need to begin with a “What” or a “How”. These open-ended questions require others to really think about their answers and not simply give us a one-word response. It takes practice to replace our closed-ended questions with more powerful open-ended questions, and it is worth the effort. The quality of our conversations will increase dramatically with this one transformation in how we converse with others.

Provide opportunities for all members of the team to share their unique perspectives.

Everyone has a unique perspective to share. At the same time, some of us are more comfortable than others joining a conversation and contributing our thoughts and ideas. We all know the one or two team members that can be expected to “dominate” a conversation. Conversely, we often can predict which members of our team are least likely to jump in with their ideas. It’s important to note that when some individuals choose not to speak up it is not necessarily an indication that they have nothing to add. For some, it is just more difficult to engage in public conversations given their communication style and preferences. As a result, it is incumbent on leaders to reach out to everyone in the room, using creative facilitation techniques, to ensure 1) that no one or two individuals dominates the discussion and 2) that everyone is asked for their opinion on the matter.

Build time into your schedule for meaningful conversations.

Given our full calendars and rushed days, if we don’t proactively set aside time for having meaningful conversations with others, there is a high likelihood that we will go days, weeks and even months without taking the time to really reach out and understand what is going on with other people on our team or in our organization. One way to ensure we spend sufficient time in meaningful conversations is to actually commit to a set amount of time each week to “walking around” or “rounding”. These times need to be sacred as they often are the first to go when the next urgent demand arrives at our doorstep. We can build powerful relationships with others by just stopping by and being willing to go wherever our people need us to go in the moment.

Slow down enough to really listen to what others are saying they need from you.

To piggyback on the last point made above, it is difficult, if not impossible, to have a meaningful conversation with someone if we are not “present”. It takes concentration to stay focused on what the other person is really saying to us. Too often, our minds wander to other conversations we need to have or to other deliverables we’ve promised, and we catch only a portion of what someone who is sitting or standing directly across from us is saying. In many cases, instead of truly listening to others, we are busy preparing our retort or our next response. This is sometimes called “reloading”, the practice of putting together our next response instead of listening to what is actually being said. This accounts for the sometimes awkward experience of saying something to someone only to be met with a blank or questioning stare since our statement bears no relevance to what they just said. Had we been tuned in to them, instead of our own need to prepare our next response, we would find it much easier to simply engage in a dialogue and maintain the flow of back and forth that a meaningful conversation represents.

Manage your use of electronic devices.

One of the signs of our time is the ubiquity of personal digital assistants, be they BlackBerry’s, Treo’s or other electronic PDAs. How many of us have been in meetings where participants, instead of listening to what is being said, are busy reading and/or answering emails or surfing the web? Out of respect for others, and in service to promoting more meaningful conversations, PDA etiquette would require that PDAs be kept in their holsters during meetings and one-on-one conversations. While electronic devices have boosted productivity in many important ways, they also can create a barrier to quality conversations with others.

Anchor your conversations around values.

If you want to change the culture, change the language. How we use language matters because very little gets done without it – whether in face-to-face conversation, over the phone, by email or memo. Our values are beliefs that are important to us. Our true values are words that we use to describe what gives meaning to our lives. If a meaningful conversation is the goal, then anchoring your conversations around values will make a difference.

If your organization has core values, ask your employees how they see those values in their own lives. How committed are they to those ideals? How do they see those values demonstrated in behaviors? If we are committed, we care. But, commitment to values like honesty, respect, or teamwork may not “look” the same to every individual in terms of daily behaviors. If “teamwork” is a value – ask your employees: “Is teamwork a value we s
ha
re?” “What does teamwork ‘look’ like to you?” “What would we be doing if we had more teamwork in our department?”

Building masterful relationships, one conversation at a time, will create value for your employees, your customers and your entire organization. I invite you to create more space and time for meaningful conversations by committing to one or more of the seven strategies listed above.