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Reimagined: Chasing the unicorn – restoring elusive conversations

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Meetings, emails, packed agendas: whether online or in the office, our days at work are full. Yet so much of what we do in these spaces relies on our ability to connect – negotiate, empathise, deliberate – with others.

So whilst we work virtually, can we find more room to build deeper, more human and long-lasting connections – through simple things like conversations – with the people we work with?

One compelling aspect of being human is our desire to create connections that are meaningful to ourselves and others.”

In a dense forest of tightly-planted meetings, torrential emails and formal engagements, it can be difficult to see much light. Bound by professional protocol and efficiency, it can be virtually impossible to find space to prioritise and make genuine connections with others. This is true whether we’re commuting to an office, or to a desk (or sofa) at home.

Yet, one compelling aspect of being human is our desire to create connections that are meaningful to ourselves and others. This need isn’t limited to our personal lives, as if we were two people – one at work and one at home. So what if we could rediscover these connections through genuine, trusting conversations?

To talk, to listen and to truly hear the other person on the screen in front of us. Fulfilling our need to connect and be understood. Especially while we’re learning to read each other through the ether, prioritising these conversations will help us build happier, stronger relationships, enabling us, and the people we connect with, to excel.

Elusive connections

There are many reasons why we struggle to have conversations that move beyond an agenda. To start with, it can be easier to adopt a work persona and language, which helps us control the way people see us and their expectations of us. This distancing, whilst sometimes helpful to create healthy work/life boundaries, can stop us being who we really are, and telling people what really matters to us.  

Or, without realising, we may be upholding a professional status quo. How many times have you reached for your email, rather than talking to a colleague about something that would be quicker to resolve in person by chatting rather than typing?

Psychological barriers aside, the biggest blocker is often time. We simply never have enough of it. We forgo conversations with colleagues because torrential email downpours and tightly-planted meetings take over our diaries. There’s only slivers of light in between.

When we’re on the forest floor – overcast with constantly doing – our vantage point is crowded.”

When we’re on the forest floor – overcast with constantly doing – our vantage point is crowded. But if we can zoom out and take an aerial view, we might more readily see the connections we could build or strengthen between colleagues and ourselves. We might spot where we avoid conversations but need them, or where we’ve put walls up to keep people from seeing the whole breadth of who we really are, what motivates us and what we care about.

Overcoming convention

There aren’t any magic bullets, but there are questions we can ask ourselves to better understand how we connect, or disconnect, from the people we work with. Questions like:

Are our conversations dominated by agendas, with no room for expression, creativity or diversion?

Do we meet colleagues, find time for them and prioritise this, or simply keep them on email speed dial?

How well do we know what motivates the people in our team, and more broadly those we work with across the organisation?

Do we actively enquire about these motivations, or tick a box to say we asked?

By paying attention to the way we engage with people we can alter our habits and make more room for understanding and empathising with the people we work with.

Beyond our immediate teams, direct reports and managers, just imagine what we could achieve if we were able to raise the bar for how people connect across the breadth and depth or our entire institutions? Unleashing the best and brightest ideas from people who bring different experiences and perspectives to our own.

A conversation is so much more than a tool for work. Used well, it can lift people up, elicit new ideas,  achieve outstanding outcomes and create trusting, long-lasting relationships.

Clear sightings

Genuine, trusting conversations are our gateway to rediscover stronger personal connections with one another.”

We know, from our own recent experiences of working with universities, that there are parts of the higher education forest that contain those metaphorical sunlit glades where these connections take root. We know this because we’ve seen it happen, where groups of people came together – talked, collaborated, imagined – and found a common purpose.

In one case, looking at the working culture of an academic department from the differing perspectives of early career researchers and more senior, established programme leaders led to powerful commitments on what needed to change. The former grouping comprised millennials from six different nationalities, and this diversity made for lively challenges to the status quo.

Another example involved students working alongside their lecturers in identifying what made learning and teaching compelling and distinctive in over 20 different Subject areas. It was striking what the academic colleagues took for granted until the students pointed out – directly and in their own language – how special this was, and how unlike the courses their friends from other universities were studying. A conversation that might otherwise have been relatively stagnant became suddenly fresh and unpredictable.

Other ways to enliven conversations by tuning into diversity include exchanging perspectives through the lenses of ethnicity, sexual identity or gender. It’s encouraging to see evidence emerging from research that shows that organisations that design their interactions to maximise fe+male synergy are able to create environments where women and men leading together modify each other’s behaviour and bring out the best in each other. They live out mutual respect, a sense of equality, high levels of trust, and commitment to shared objectives.

These selective examples show the possibilities that come from opening up the conversation with colleagues from all walks of our professional lives. Genuine, trusting conversations are our gateway to rediscover stronger personal connections with one another. They help us to understand each other better and meet our human needs to connect, whilst enabling us to work better together and achieve more professionally for ourselves and our organisations.

If we could make just a little more time for more conversations, imagine what we might achieve.


Louise Clifton and Paul Gentle

Louise and Paul, Director of Marketing and Academic Director at Invisible Grail respectively, co-authored this blog. Their aspiration is to unlock the potential for creating better, stronger connections for everyone working in Higher Education.

Find out how to create better connections

We work with universities and their people to nurture stronger, more sustainable connections based on shared values, vision and purpose. Using a blend of leadership and communication techniques, we’ve partnered with over 1900 people from more than 65 institutions across the UK and internationally. Find out what we can do with you.

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