Designing meaningful conversations

Laura-Jane Booker
Laura-Jane Booker
Designing meaningful conversations

Designing meaningful conversations

It's critical that people feel comfortable giving and receiving feedback. Then they are more likely to share their honest thoughts, ideas, questions, and concerns; and you can identify where and how change needs to happen.

The best way we've found to create a sense of comfort is through good question design. The way a question is framed will either:

Help people feel safe and comfortable, encouraging them to share their honest feedback. OR Make people feel uneasy, so they're less willing to say what they really think.

At Joyous, we've come up with some core principles of good design to ensure our questions feel comfortable for everyone answering.

1) Questions should be outcome focused and not bruise anyone's ego

Not many people feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and opinions about their leaders. Particularly if those opinions are not so positive, and especially when their leaders can see their responses. So our questions don't ask about leader behaviors; they ask about the outcomes of leader behaviours.

2) Questions should be simple and inclusive

Questions need to make sense to a wide audience. Not everyone went to high school or university, finds writing easy to process, or is a native English speaker. Joyous uses plain and simple language so that our entire target audience can take part in conversations.

We check the reading age of our questions using the Hemingway App and aim for a reading age of Grade 6 or below. Writing for a grade school reading age increases responsiveness. Why? Because when questions are easy to understand, people process them quickly and are more likely to engage with them.

3) Questions should be specific and non-ambiguous

If questions are ambiguous and open to interpretation, the answers to those questions may also be ambiguous and open to interpretation. We try to avoid words and phrases that have multiple meanings or require context to interpret.

4) Questions should be personal

Our questions invite people to draw on their personal experiences. This means they can provide further context around their feedback, or get support on something they're personally dealing with.

5) Conversations should flow logically

Most questions in Joyous start with a rated statement and are followed by an open question. The rated statement will prompt certain thoughts. It's important that the following open question logically flows so that people can talk about those thoughts.

6) Questions should sound like they're being asked by someone who will action them

With responder models (where direct leaders are responding to feedback), it's important that questions sound like they came from a leader instead - of the organization. This encourages people to give specific responses that can be actioned by their leaders.

7) Conversations should drive immediate action

Our questions are designed to uncover individual preferences, crowdsource ideas for change and improvement, and prompt reflection. They are all action-oriented and enable the people responding to own and be a part of a change.

Designing conversations

With these principles in mind, let's look at a common engagement question and compare it to a Joyous alternative.

Most engagement questions are asked anonymously, and leaders can see the anonymous feedback. Here's an example of a commonly used engagement question.

My manager cares about me as a person. (0 - Strongly Disagree, 10 - Strongly Agree)

Questions like this ask an employee to rate their leader's behavior, which can be confronting and uncomfortable. The question offers no opportunity to provide further context, and leaders viewing the feedback may feel they have been treated unfairly or mischaracterized. As a result there are limited opportunities for action; possible revenge or blame laying; and potential relationship damage.

Joyous questions are attributable. Leaders can clearly see their reporting lines' feedback, and they have the ability to respond directly. Here's an example of a Joyous question:

People at ACME are quick to offer support when I’m not okay. (0 - Strongly Disagree, 10 - Strongly Agree). Help us recognise when you’re not okay. What should we be looking out for?

The way the rated statement is framed won't bruise anyone's ego, and it focuses on an outcome of leader behavior - support. It doesn't single out leaders as the only ones who can provide support however!

Leaders can reflect on whether they're able to offer the necessary support. They can engage with people via Joyous, or take conversations offline, depending on individual preferences. Joyous conversations are normative and model ideal behaviors: in this case that leaders should be conscious of signs that people are struggling. This results in leaders becoming more sensitive to peoples' well-being, and more accustomed to acting quickly when immediate care is required.

Why question design matters

Why do we gather feedback? To make change and drive action. When people feel comfortable giving and receiving feedback, change is less disruptive and there are more opportunities for action. People also feel more ownership over the change and action when they can see how their feedback contributes to the big picture. The more feedback you collect, the more likely you are to make the right changes happen for the right people, and the more they're likely to contribute in the future.