Tools

How to Bring Background Conversations to the Foreground

Every organization has hidden conversations—but if you can’t talk about an issue, or if you don’t know an issue even exists in the first place, you can’t address it.

We’ve all sat in meetings where a decision was officially reached in the room—but in the hallways immediately afterwards, people came to their own interpretation of that decision, or decided to ignore it, or even do the exact opposite. Or maybe you’re a leader who suspects that your team is having spirited discussions about an important issue… just not with you. How do you get your team to share what they’re really thinking?

In every organization, you’ll find two kinds of communication:

  • Foreground conversations are those that take place in the open; that are public and transparent. These are your regular team meetings; your all-hands; your public Slack channel threads.
  • Background conversations are private or hidden conversations. These are your hallway conversations after a meeting; happy hour chats; texts to your work friend.

While foreground conversations are the official communication channels, your organization is run by your background conversations. If you can’t talk about an issue, or if you don’t know an issue even exists in the first place, you can’t address it.

Now, your first instinct as a leader might be to think of these background conversations as “bad,” but there’s nothing inherently right or wrong about either type. In fact, many background conversations don’t necessarily need to be “fixed”—sometimes people just need to vent, or they’ve just had an off day. And these conversations will always take place, so don’t waste energy trying to ban or eliminate them.

At the same time, if you can’t surface these background conversations—if you can’t name them and drag them into the foreground—you’ll never be able to sort out what’s noise and what’s signal. If you notice your team is reticent to have these conversations, try the following:

  • Start small and safe. Break your team into pairs and give them five minutes to discuss background conversations they’ve heard or participated in. (If they’re uncomfortable with this even in pairs, they should start with relatively “safe” topics, like “everyone complains that the breakroom coffee is too bitter.”) Then, bring everyone back together to discuss the experience of talking about background conversations. Pairs don’t have to share the nature of background conversations they discussed, just what they noticed when doing so: was it scary? Did they discover their partner had similar conversations with others? Were they completely unable to name any background conversations?
  • Make it a game. Now break the team up into smaller groups of three to four people and invite them to compete: they should list as many background conversations as possible, and the group with the most identified, “wins.” Give them more time, around 10 to 15 minutes, so they can list all the obvious or easy background conversations, and start to get into the more difficult ones that nevertheless should be surfaced. Once again, bring them back together to reflect on the experience of talking about background conversations, and this time, encourage them to share some of the specific topics they identified.
    • Pro tip: as a leader, make it clear that people won’t be punished for what they share, and praise people when they do bring sensitive issues to light.

It’s entirely possible that this exercise will bring up issues that can and should be addressed, but don’t ask teams to solve anything—make that a separate session. Dedicate this time to practicing surfacing background conversations so they get comfortable with a new skill.

Published January 25, 2021