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How to Lead Good Team Conversations (long version)
How to Lead Good Team Conversations (long version)

Tips for running a conversation with your team (extended article)

Updated over a week ago

Pro tip: If you're more the hands-on type, we've introduced an interactive Discussion Guide to help lay out a framework for hosting a team discussion for your Align. Check out the demo, or read more at this page.

We highly recommend this for busy managers who don't have a lot of time to prepare. The Discussion tool is a replacement for manually creating a powerpoint deck - just click to start and follow the framework with your team.

General Tips

What follows is the long article for people who are serious about hosting great conversations. If you're only ready to commit to the 5 bullet point summary the shorter version is here.

What to Keep in Mind

To prepare, be clear on the desired outcome(s) for the conversation.

For example, if your team is reviewing their Align results, the desired outcomes for the conversation might be:

Each team member has a better understanding of our current team culture, and the team culture we aspire to;

  • We identify 3 things to celebrate and continue in our team culture;

  • We develop 3-5 action items to strengthen our team culture.

Use these desired outcomes to help you think through what needs to happen in the discussion, and how you will know if the discussion is successful. Share these outcomes with the team so that they can help move the conversation toward these outcomes, and so that they know why they’re there.

Remember that your team members might be arriving at the discussion with varying levels of buy-in or enthusiasm for the topic. You might want to speak with team members one-on-one beforehand to understand where they’re coming from, and to talk to them about why you think the discussion will be valuable for the whole team.

Understand where you’re coming from. Depending on the discussion topic, you might have strong opinions of your own. In order to lead the discussion effectively, you’ll need to be able to set your opinions aside and listen to the perspectives of your team. If you feel that you won’t be able to do that, then a) you may need to enlist the help of an external facilitator, or b) this topic might not be relevant for the whole team (i.e. if you are the team lead and ultimate decision-maker and you have a strong opinion, then don’t solicit any team input that doesn’t have a chance of changing your mind.)

What to Do to Start the Discussion

Have a friendly go-around.

If team members have a chance to contribute early on in the conversation, then they will be more likely to continue to contribute throughout. Start the discussion with a go-around, and invite everyone to answer a question that is:

a) relevant to the discussion topic,

b) allows them to share a bit about themselves, and

c) isn’t too personal.

Pro tip: If your question invites stories or anecdotes, the go-around will take longer, but it will increase the feeling of connection across the team.

For example: if your team is meeting to discuss team culture using their Align results, the opening go-around might be:

Today we’re talking about our team culture. Let’s start off by hearing about other cultures (in other teams or companies, or even in other countries or communities)) that each of us has spent time in. What culture did you experience and what parts of the culture did you appreciate?

Set expectations

  • Tell the group that team discussions can help the team work better together and perform better, and that team discussions can sometimes be uncomfortable, because the group has a chance to look at what’s not working too.

  • Tell the group that in order to have the most worthwhile conversation, you hope they will agree to a few principles to follow in this conversation:

  • Give each other our full attention

  • Speak up: your contribution matters

  • Step back: if you are talking more than others, step back so that others have space to contribute

  • Be curious: listen to each other in order to understand all viewpoints

  • Use I-statements

  • For example, instead of “We always rush ahead without planning,” say, “I want more time to plan before we start doing.”

What to Do During the Discussion

Continue to ensure everyone has a chance to contribute.

  • If someone hasn’t spoken up, take a moment to ask them directly what their thoughts are.

  • Give people of different communication styles different ways to contribute:

  • a brainstorm exercise where everyone contributes to a mindmap

  • ask each person to write ideas on post-its

  • break into groups of two or three for smaller conversations.

Keep the group on track. More often than not, participants appreciate it when the discussion leader pulls the group back on topic when it’s wandered off.

  • Post the desired outcomes of the discussion so that you can refer to them to get the group back on track.

  • Have a “parking lot” or “bicycle rack” for important but out-of-scope items that come up. The group can return to those items at a scheduled time.

Encourage and appreciate ideas and discussion.

  • Thank people for their contributions.

  • Echo back what you’ve heard.

  • Capture ideas on a flipchart or in a shared document.

  • Ask people to “tell us more” if you don’t understand or disagree.

  • Draw links between the different ideas and reflections that are shared.

  • From time to time, take a few minutes to summarize back to the group where the conversation is at (“Our goal for today’s conversation is… So far we’ve heard…. We still want to cover….”).

Some things to watch out for

One person is monopolizing the conversation.

  • Say: “I’ve heard that you think that [echo back]. I’m going to put the same question to a few others in the group.”

  • You might need to speak to the person one-on-one during a break, especially if this person is in a position of authority, to let them know that they will need to say less in order for all team members to be heard.

No one is speaking up.

  • Try switching to groups of 2 or 3 for small group discussions.

  • Ask people to write answers/ideas on post-its and collect the post-its at the front of the room.

The discussion becomes heated or personal.

  • Acknowledge the disagreement, refer back to the desired outcomes of the discussion, and ask others on the team for ideas of how to move the discussion forward constructively.

  • Ask each person in the disagreement to summarize what they’re hearing the other person say.

  • Call a break and speak to each person involved in the disagreement. Ask for their input on how to move the discussion forward.

The group seems stuck.

  • Ask what the “and” is. This means: instead of looking at a situation from an either a or b perspective, ask how it would be possible to have both a and b. Example: how can we have a caring team culture and give each other regular feedback?

  • Ask what an outsider would think/say/do about the item at hand. Example: “What would a rocket scientist think? What would Steve Jobs say? What would our CEO do?” (And you'll probably want to do the opposite of the last one).

  • Say: “It feels like we’re stuck here. Let’s go around and hear from each person, in one sentence, what would help us move past this.”

  • Say: “It seems like we’re stuck here, and I don’t think we’ll resolve it today. Let’s set this issue aside and come back to it at another date. Let’s focus our remaining time on some of the other issues where we do have agreement and see a way forward.”

The group can’t come to agreement.

  • It’s okay not to have consensus on everything. Review with the group what there is agreement on, and move forward on those items.

  • Look for the underlying values behind the disagreement. For example, if some members of the time place a high value on inclusive decision-making, and other members place a high value on efficient decision-making, then there may be disagreement: some members think the team is too slow to make decisions, and some members think the team makes decisions too quickly and without sufficient input. Look for a way to satisfy both values: what decision-making process would be both inclusive and efficient?

What to Do to Identify Action Items

Make time for it in the agenda. Don’t brush past action items or cram them into the last few minutes. Show that you value this discussion’s content and your team’s input by taking the time to identify the right action items. For example, if the team discussion is about the Align results, the action items section is often 5-15 minutes toward the end of the meeting.

Getting action items right

  • Action items should relate to the desired outcome of the discussion.

  • Action items should have a clear owner.

  • Action items should be specific and clear enough that anyone can easily assess if they have been completed.

  • Action items should have an assigned deadline. If the action items are to be repeated (habits), then the habits should have an assigned frequency.

  • Action items should be documented.

  • Action items should have an associated accountability process (time to check in on commitments made and actions taken).

  • Use your Align results! Do deep-dives on the lowest-scoring statements, or statements that are below the benchmark averages

Enlist the team. The manager or team lead doesn’t have to be the one to identify and assign the actions. This is a team discussion: trust the team and each individual to come up with the action items. Once the actions are identified, ask the team to summarize what actions they are committing to. Ask the team how they would like to be held accountable to these commitments.

What to Do to End the Team Discussion

Have a friendly go-around. Similar to the way you opened the discussion, a go-around allows everyone to share final thoughts and reflections and to feel that the discussion is complete. Here are some question prompts you might use for your final go-around:

  • What’s one thing from this discussion that you’ll be thinking about more in the days to come? (acknowledges that not everything has been tied up completely)

  • What’s something someone else said in this discussion that was meaningful to you? (builds team connections and acknowledgement)

  • What final things do you need to say to feel that this discussion is complete for you for today? (provides a way for participants to have closure, even if the discussion didn’t cover everything they wanted it to)

Say thank you. Team discussions can feel uncomfortable, vulnerable, or just plain unfamiliar to some participants. Thank your team for being there and for their contributions. Let them know what the next steps are and how they will be included.

And that is the longest article we may ever write in our help guide. I'm surprised you got this far. There's a link at the top but as a reminder, we have an Interactive Discussion Guide for you to use as well!

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