Many of us were looking forward to the end of 2020, a relentlessly volatile and stressful year. We would have hoped that 2021 would feel like a fresh start – an opportunity to begin the new year with renewed energy and focus. By now, it has become clear that things will remain uncertain. 

More than a year after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, with still no reprieve from months of uncertainty, we must navigate a wide range of important decisions and challenges. To ensure that our decisions have the best possible outcomes for everyone, we must have the skills to address our challenges collaboratively.

What will be more important than ever is our ability to have consistent and impactful conversations about the topics that matter.

Here are three important conversations you need to prepare yourself to have this year.

Prepare Yourself for These Three Conversations

1. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

By now, it should be clear that DE&I is more than a hot topic. It is a critical matter that must still be at the forefront of discussion for every organization. From senior leadership to individual contributors, everyone needs to know how to handle conversations about diversity even if having them feels unfamiliar, sensitive, or uncomfortable. 

It will be important to ensure we do more than speak in platitudes. This topic may make us feel anxious, we may not know exactly what to say, and may not have a bonafide solution to offer. However, we need to learn how to show a genuine interest towards creating lasting change.

An inclusive workplace requires that you foster collaboration on new procedures, gather feedback on norms, and listen to a peer’s challenges. Whatever the case is, when approaching these conversations, everyone needs to have the skills to:

  • Accept that people will have difficult questions, frustrations, and doubts
  • Provide people an opportunity to have voice and validate their feelings with true empathy and open-mindedness
  • Address these sensitive issues in a way that builds trust and makes people feel valued
  • Be candid and straight forward rather than sugar coating or avoiding the elephant in the room

2. Health and Safety

Regardless of what phase of COVID-19 reopening your city is in, the virus continues to pose a significant health risk globally.

Many of us may be preparing to return to the office, school, and our overall “normal” way of life, but there are still unknowns with regards to health and safety. Are existing protocols sufficient? What if there is another wave? How comfortable are people with vaccination? What support do they need? Important decisions are best made with the involvement of all stakeholders. But how do we have effective and collaborative conversations about such a sensitive topic?

The share of people showing symptoms of anxiety and/or depression has risen dramatically since the onset of the pandemic. Now, after repeated stay-at-home orders and the barrage of news surrounding vaccine rollout, it is only natural for conversations about moving ahead and resuming pre-pandemic activities to be fraught with tension.

We need to know how to: 

  • Instill confidence in others despite not having all of the answers
  • Be open to disagreements and handle different opinions and unique concerns with empathy and respect
  • Step into difficult conversations and find a way to calm heightened emotions

3. Stress and Burnout

We have all experienced many changes over the past year including organizational restructuring,  shrinking teams, increased workloads, shift to remote work, and soon perhaps a shift back to in-person work. Work-life balance has been difficult to navigate with the lines blurred. Job insecurity, fear of the virus itself, and social unrest are ongoing stressors too.

Such widespread and relentless disruption has likely led to mental and emotional exhaustion for not only yourself, but those around you. When everyone is stressed and at varying levels of burnout, we need to be aware of others’ needs so we can respond appropriately. 

We may not be able to restore the normalcy everyone craves, but we can develop the capability to:

  • Empower people to express their needs and ensure they feel heard
  • Balance empathy and compassion with business needs and performance management
  • Have energizing and supportive conversations to mitigate the impact of burnout on morale

The World Health Organization now recognizes burnout as an occupational phenomenon, describing it as “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Good conversation skills can go a long way in helping people adapt. 

The Benefits of Developing Your Conversation Skills

It will not be easy to have conversations about these lightning-rod topics. The key is to ensure we have the skills to initiate, manage, and follow up with these conversations. Some of these conversation skills include:

  • Empathy and validation
  • Active listening
  • Constructive feedback

Investing in conversation skills can impact you and your team in several ways.

Confidence: With a lesser chance of your own heightened emotions getting in the way and the tools to address heightened emotions in others, you will be able to approach challenges in a calm, grounded way.

Psychological Safety: The more open and honest conversations you and your team have, especially about difficult matters, the more trust, creative thinking, and risk-taking you will be able to foster among your team. 

Collaboration: Two heads are better than one. If you and your team improve the way you approach difficult conversations, you will be able to build a habit of collaborative problem solving that promotes efficiency and innovation.

Taking the First Step

Making decisions that affect our relationships, performance, and culture are difficult in certain times, but with the current speed of change and imperfect information, it may seem nearly impossible to get things right. 

There is no doubt uncertainty and its associated emotions of fear, frustration, and anxiety will continue to permeate our lives. The key to thriving in this new normal that we have all heard of so much by now, is to collaborate with and support one another. Developing our ability to consistently have engaging conversations, even in the midst of ambiguity and anxiety, is the first step.

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