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Chasing the unicorn – restoring elusive conversations

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Meetings, emails, packed agendas: 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.

In this maelstrom of daily office life, where are we making room for building genuine human connections, through simple things like conversations, with the people we work with?

In a dense forest of tightly-planted meetings, torrential emails and formal engagements, it can be difficult to see much light. If every day is bound by the kind of convention and protocol that makes it virtually impossible to make any genuine personal connection, we need to go in search of a different neck of the woods: a place where our working days are not only informed by procedure, but shaped by our connections 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. Rediscovering how to connect with people through genuine, trusting conversations is essential for us to fulfil this need, and helps us build happier, stronger relationships, enabling us, and the people we connect with, to excel.

Overcoming convention

Just imagine what we could achieve if we were able to unleash the best and brightest ideas from people who bring different experiences and perspectives to our own.

Can we really achieve in universities something which may seem impossibly elusive: conversations with a perfect sense of flow, where all parties connect and empathise with one another, and outstanding outcomes ensue?

Better still, imagine if we could do this across the breadth and depth of diversity of the people we encounter in our institutional communities. Just imagine what we could achieve if we were able to unleash the best and brightest ideas from people who bring different experiences and perspectives to our own.

When a great conversation happens, we know by instinct that it’s worked. A sense of purpose is revealed which connects people. The joy that comes from sharing this brings out the best in us, and yet, if we know these types of conversations can draw out so much good, why are they so elusive?

Elusive connections

How many times have you reached for your email, rather than talking to a colleague face to face or on the phone, about something that would be quicker to resolve in person rather than text?

There are many reasons why we struggle to have these types of conversations. To start with, we might not be used to connecting with people beyond professional courtesy. It can be easier to adopt a work persona to control our environment, the way people see us and their expectations of us. This distancing, whilst sometimes helpful to create healthy work/life boundaries, can often result in limiting how much of ourselves – the best parts of what makes us uniquely us – we bring to work each day. If we do this over and over, no one will see or understand what motivates, inspires and energises us.

Without realising, we may also be party to upholding a cultural status quo which we use to distance ourselves from one another. How many times have you reached for your email, rather than talking to a colleague face to face or on the phone, about something that would be quicker to resolve in person rather than text?

If these two reasons weren’t hefty enough, the biggest blocker is often time. We simply don’t have enough of it. We forgo conversations with colleagues because other, more pressing tasks take priority. Between those torrential email downpours and tightly-planted meetings, meaningful conversations with colleagues get pressed into the increasingly small spaces in-between.

Yet if we zoom out and take the aerial view of this challenging terrain, we might realise that we’re only a mere step or two away from others – whether physically, or in perspective, purpose or motivation – but on the forest floor our vantage point is crowded with to do lists, feelings or perceptions that can cast long shadows over our days.

So what do we do about this?

There aren’t any magic bullets, but there are shifts we can take to help us maximise how we connect with others, and it starts with asking ourselves questions like these:

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 – the spaces, times, and critically how we do this – we can alter our habits and make more room for understanding and empathising with the people we work with. We can begin to see the lay of the land around us more clearly, and we enable others to glimpse how we see the professional ecosystem around us too.

Clear sightings

These selective examples show the possibilities that come from opening up the conversation with colleagues from all walks of our professional lives.

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 magic can happen. We know this because we’ve seen it happen, where conversations worked because they tapped into the vibrant energy from diverse groupings of people who come together for a 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 narrative organisational development – a blend of leadership and communication techniques – we’ve partnered with over 1500 people from 50 institutions across the UK and Ireland. Find out what we can do with you.

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