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6 Critical Levels of Conversation

Critical conversations in the workplace have the power to create change, including shifts in perspective, knowledge, and understanding.  In her book, The Art of Conversation, Judy Apps explains that “the word ‘conversation’ is made up of con, ‘with,’ and versare, ‘turn.’ Conversation is turn and turn about—you alternate.” A genuine conversation must be a two-way exchange involving debate, discussion, or dialogue. In the context of mentoring, quality conversations support learners’: 

  • developmental growth in knowledge, technical competence, and behavioral competence
  • career needs, including career goals, aspirations, and growth
  • identification of enabling levers, such as a development plan, career plan, learning resources, and a wider network of opportunities
  • emotional needs, including increased confidence, altruistic satisfaction, reflective space, status, and intellectual challenge. 

The nature and quality of conversations vary significantly from individual to team and organization. To shift an organization’s culture and working practices, we must first accept that conversation is critical and that good conversation is a subtle art that requires nurturing and developing. 
Here’s a useful framework on the various levels of conversation managers should keep in mind as they work with others.


Social dialogue is about developing friendship and providing support and encouragement; it is essential for building connections and relationships, including those in the workplace. High-performing employees tend to have a much wider and higher quality of social networks than their lower-performing peers. 

These networks usually have two main functions. One is informational—people who provide access to information that helps the individual make better decisions, understand context, and recognize opportunities. The second is instrumental—people through whom we get things done. In informational networks, the social exchange is knowledge, ranging from useful hints and tips, to transfer of skills and know-how. In instrumental networks, the exchange is primarily one of influence, which includes the shoring up of favors. 

Managers might ask themselves these questions about the social level of dialogue:

  • How can I help people build and maintain social networks?
  • How can I facilitate the identification of common points of interest in the workforce?
  • How can I encourage people to talk openly about their interests and concerns?


Technical dialogue helps employees learn about work processes, policies, and systems, all of which are essential in acquiring skills and expertise. Highly effective executives are precise about the skills and knowledge they need to acquire; and they aim to acquire them in the most efficient way. In our research on high-performing teams, one of the key factors we have identified is the willingness to share and ask for expertise on a just-in-time basis. Line managers need to create a climate within their department where this sharing can happen naturally. 

Questions related to the technical level of conversations include:

  • How can I encourage and facilitate conversations and relationships between employees who are highly effective and those who need development in a specific area?
  • How can I ensure employees’ levels of knowledge and understanding are transparent?
  • How can I ensure just-in-time advice is available to all employees?


Strategic dialogue helps employees take a broader perspective and consider opportunities and their own ambitions within a wider context; it is essential in aligning employee and employer ambitions and needs. The more that conversation informs employees about potential opportunities and informs employers about shifting capabilities and aspirations of employees, the easier alignment becomes. 

What frequently happens today is that the organization has a great deal of information about likely future developments, but its leadership does not share these scenarios with employees. At the same time, employees tend to keep their career aspirations close to the chest. Understanding what people have the energy and enthusiasm for, as well as the expectations they hold about their career progression, helps to link strategy with employee capability and interests. 

At the strategic level, managers may ponder: 

  • How can I encourage and facilitate sharing of information between different groups of employees? For example, might I schedule a regular biweekly meeting so that employees’ calendars are cleared to make conversation a priority?
  • How can I help the organization listen better to employee concerns and input and use this information in strategic planning?
  • How can I help employees understand the broader context within which they operate?


Self-insight is a deeper level of conversation that helps employees understand their own ambitions, energies, uncertainties, and thinking patterns. Self-insight is critical to raising employees’ awareness of their strengths, weaknesses, values, and motivations, therefore helping them make better career choices. This will enable the company to determine what roles will allow employees to express and develop their talents. 

Coaching and mentoring are essential tools that help people link a deeper understanding of their internal contexts with greater awareness of the world around them (the external context). This is the starting point for performance improvement and positive behavior change. One of the relevant skills is ensuring that other people give you timely, honest, and relevant feedback, rather than relying on occasional psychometrics or other supports from HR. 

To encourage self-insight among employees, here are a few questions for managers:

  • How can I encourage and facilitate employees’ self-insights?
  • How can I create time and space for employees to think through and come to terms with their own self-knowledge?
  • What tools does the organization use to assist employees with self-discovery? For example, do we encourage the use of journals and provide a space where employees can reflect on their career trajectory?

Behavioral Change

Behavioral dialogue helps employees combine insight, strategy, and tactics into a personal planning approach, which is essential if employees are going to shift into a different role in the organization. Behavior change is often a necessary precursor to making that shift to the next position. 

For behavioral changes to take effect and be sustainable, it is important that both individuals and those around them adapt. Modern talent management increasingly sees this as a systemic issue—helping people understand the systems of which they are a part helps them change. It also shifts accountability more firmly onto the employee’s shoulders, rather than on the manager or organization. 

To facilitate behavior change, here are a few questions for managers to consider: 

  • How can I encourage continuing and honest dialogue that addresses the needs of the individual and the wider team? Are there regular meetings scheduled? Is there truly an open-door policy, not just in name but integrated into the organization’s culture? Do I walk around the offices and make myself visible to employees?
  • Why is change important for employees, teams, and the organization? How can I reinforce the need for change?
  • How can I encourage a commitment to change?


Integrative dialogue, which is sometimes called transpersonal dialogue, helps employees develop a clear sense of self and personal meaning. It involves determining who they are, what they contribute, and how they fit in—which are all essential in developing more perceptive, holistic, and authentic ways of thinking and behaving. These conversations are particularly useful when the person is evolving in identity. 

At this deepest level of conversation, some questions for managers are:

  • How can I help employees, teams, and the organization explore genuinely diverse perspectives? For example, are there internal groups that bring together employees from different nations or generations or from different branches of the company (marketing, sales, and so on) to learn from each other?
  • How can I help employees to develop a multifaceted picture of themselves, through consideration of past, present, and future actions? For example, the manager could ask an employee, “What would your 25-year-old self have done in this situation? How would he have reacted? 

Note: This article is excerpted from the July 2016 TD at Work, “5 Critical Conversations to Talent Development.” Good conversations do not necessarily come naturally, and the guidance provided in will help all stakeholders have more fruitful conversations about their work.

About the Author
Julie Haddock-Millar is a consultant in the fields of talent management, mentoring, and coaching. She is senior lecturer and senior teaching fellow in human resource management and development at Middlesex University Business School. She leads on the development international standards in mentoring and coaching programs for the European Mentoring and Coaching Council.
About the Author
David Clutterbuck is a visiting professor in the coaching and mentoring faculties of three UK universities (Oxford Brookes, Sheffield Hallam, and York St John) and adjunct faculty at Ashridge. He cofounded the European Mentoring and Coaching Council, which collaborates with ICF in the Global Coaching and Mentoring Alliance. The author or co-author of 65 books, he is practice lead for Coaching & Mentoring International.
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