Not being able to have conversations leads to stress because people are not able to vent out feelings and share their aspirations. Lack of empathy in the workplace leads to mistrust and further hinders free-flowing conversation. This has become a major cause for concern and, unfortunately, often goes unnoticed or not given its due importance. Added to this is the unprecedented pandemic of COVID-19 due to which small talk at workplaces has stopped because majority of the people (who have managed to retain their jobs) are working from home.
Having a strong social support system both in the personal and professional life is imperative to overall well-being.
Research has shown that just talking or venting out feelings can reduce stress. One study showed that higher well-being was associated with spending less time alone, and more time talking to others. In order to facilitate conversations, we have devised the concept of ‘agenda-less conversations’ to foster social interaction and relationships. Conversations are to be unassisted and unbiased, where each participant feels valued and fresh perspectives pour in. ‘Agendaless’; seemingly a misnomer is paradoxical to its true purpose and content.
Far from being ‘agenda-less’, this is a tool with a purpose and can be adopted by organizations to help people speak without fear of experiencing retribution or judgment. It can work as a breather if we can first disable our automatic and oftentimes misleading prejudgment of others. When a team openly exchanges their concerns, aspirations, and ideas, shared goals can be coherently formed to positively impact performance.
When we encourage love and understanding we can then pay attention to the entirety of a ‘person’. Togetherness can be fostered by helping employees relieve themselves off their emotional baggage and leverage the power of positive emotions. Happiness should ideally be a constant state of mind, not a magical switch that can be turned on and off. Agenda -less conversation is a starter to transform from ‘me to we’ and convert a group into a team.
Agenda-less conversations are not hard to have. In fact, counter-intuitive as it might sound, we do have some guidelines for carrying out effortless, agenda-less conversations. They can be done at the organizational, interpersonal, and individual levels.
- Dissolve Authority: The fear of reprisal is prominent in informal setups like corporate offices and educational institutions, where employees are often afraid of approaching their supervisors and students their teachers, to discuss topics unrelated to work. The sense of authority needs to be dissolved for a better flow of ideas and collective accountability. This will aid in developing teams, where collaboration, fluidity and win-win solutions will lead to high performance, encourage creativity, and facilitate innovations.
- Organize and nurture psychological safe spaces: Team psychological safety is defined by Amy Edmondson as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It is a sense of confidence that other people in the group will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up. This confidence stems from mutual respect, trust, and giving the benefit of the doubt to each other.
- Rebuild Human Connections: Engage in heart-to-heart conversations wherein participants can feel free to discuss anything and everything H2H conversations can be truly agendaless only if there is psychological safety present in the group. Organizations can arrange activities such as ‘fireside chats’, or roundtable chats where people can unplug from all devices and enjoy the warmth of relationships, which will go a long way in alleviating loneliness and insecurities and increase relatedness among members of an organization.
- Empathy: Empathy is crucial to building trust. It is essential to understand the experience and feelings of others sensitively and accurately as they are revealed in the moment-to-moment interaction. Empathy is a deep and subjective understanding of the individual with the individual. Accurate empathic understanding implies that peoples’ feelings are to be sensed as if they were your own without becoming lost in those feelings.
- 1-2-4-All: Developed by McCandless and Lipmanowicz, it encourages people to participate in conversations. People feel comfortable talking to one single person rather than a large crowd at once. This method allows people to pair up and share individual ideas and then 2-3 minutes to discuss and find surprises, contradictions, and commonalities. Then the duos pair up and are given 4 minutes to share and continue knowing each other or building ideas. Groups are paired up till all of them have come together. It engages every individual and helps create safe spaces for expression, diminishes power differentials, and builds naturally toward consensus or shared understanding.
- Open mindset: Agendaless conversations cannot work unless the participants remove their cognitive biases before engaging with others. Freeing up all expectations, shedding prejudices and biases can promote organizational relationships. Open-minded people are more willing to embrace new things, fresh ideas, and novel experiences. They are also very good at thinking about and making connections between different concepts and ideas.
- Active listening: Active listening does not mean just hearing but also understanding what the other person has to say. The ‘way’ something is said is just as important as the actual words spoken. Observing non-verbal cues is also essential. When others are speaking you do not interrupt as it may disrupt the flow of thoughts.
- Enjoy the Process: As children, most people have partaken in carefree playing and joyfully interacted with peers without any pre-conceived biases, or agendas. As adults we find it more difficult to engage with those different from us, therefore it is imperative that while rebuilding human connections we are aware of such differences. Talking with each other, instead of at each other; conversing without labels is important to the success of agendaless conversations and subsequently will help establish stronger bonds within an organization.
Despite being busy with hectic schedules, we need to create a safe and secure environment around us where we can indulge in friendly, casual and informal conversation without any predetermined agenda in mind.
We have garnered the initial success of this concept in high-stress zones such as management colleges and corporate workplaces, and, during COVID-19, even online through ‘Weekending with Vishwas’. It is validating to see how steps are being taken in various parts of the world to create safe spaces to have agendaless conversations. We have found agendaless conversations have the power of reuniting individuals and breaking down stereotypes, with communal wellness taking priority over personal gains. Mental wellness can only be truly achieved when we are liberated from our blinkered mindsets. In the absence of a façade, genuineness can strengthen human relationships. In the agenda-less-ness that we propagate, the direction for conversations free of rhetoric and ego are encouraged; through this, we hope to convert distress to eustress.