ASK THE OD DOCTORS : How do we have Real Conversations with our people?

Reflections and Thoughts by Dr. Peter Cheng

Executive Director

Whether we’re in business or social settings, connecting with people is what we need to do to achieve our goals in life - or perhaps achieving the much talked-about KPIs in our workplace. To really connect with others, we first need to have real conversations that provide a platform for parties to understand others as much as we seek to be understood.

The essence of an effective and real conversation rests on its authenticity. It has no pretense. Hence, having real conversations requires us to be truthful, authentically share our thoughts and feelings, listen to others' thoughts and feelings and through all of this, stay connected with each other.

I find that connectivity and empathy have a lot in common. The dictionary defines “connectivity” as the quality of being connected while the word “empathy” denotes the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. If we as leaders are not empathetic, we’re therefore not able to connect with our followers.

To empathetically be connected with others requires us to listen. There is a saying, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger”.  How beautiful this world would be, if only we practise this!

“The left-hand column” is a concept that comes to mind when I think about listening. It postulates that whenever we have a conversation with someone, there are actually two conversations taking place - The first conversation is explicit and comprises of the words we speak in the process of interacting. The second conversation comprises of our unexpressed thoughts and feelings.

Often times, this second conversation distorts us from really listening to what the other party has to say to us. Distortion happens when we begin to “listen” to our inner voice and shut out the message that's being relayed to us externally from the other party. There’re several reasons why we resort to listening to our inner voice instead of focusing on the actual conversation with others. It could be due to our strong mental model about what things and matters ought to be, our possible defensive attitude against feedback given to us, our intention to drive a point across regardless of the reality out there, or our unvalidated assumptions about things that we ‘re so “sure” about, amongst other reasons. 

When we’re tuned in to our inner voice, we lose focus on the message that is being relayed to us from the other party in conversation.  Going back to the definition of empathy, how are we able to understand others and share their feelings when we don’t really tune in to them? It's not uncommon now to see a work team comprising of several nationalities, each of which brings its unique values, culture and mental models of how things should or shouldn’t be. Just imagine the many second conversations that are taking place inside a team of diverse nationalities and cultures!

Even in the case of two parties with the same nationality, their individual mental model alone is enough to cause distortion to the supposed real conversation. Compounded by the multigenerational workforce that is ‘’superimposed” on a matrix organisational structure, we certainly see an increasing challenge for us to be empathetic if we do not manage our inner voice that prevents external messages from getting through to us.

In the context of having a real conversation with our people, there’s definitely more to just toning down our inner voice.  It’s also about having the courage to verbalise our thoughts and feelings explicitly so that the other party is given the opportunity to connect and empathise with us. Unless we surface our inner voice, the conversations that we have with others fall short of being real and authentic.

Here’re some suggestions that would help us engage in a real conversation with our followers:

  1. Be quick to listen: give all our attention to the other party in conversation. Listen not only to the points of similarity but also point of differences.
  2. Suspend your judgment and stay focused on listening.
  3. Ask quality questions to clarify points that you don't understand, and engage the other party at the opportune time. There are seeds of brilliance waiting to be unseeded in every quality question.
  4. Avoid disrupting the other person from sharing his/her thoughts.
  5. Be willing to accept diverse perspectives and ask “what can I learn from this perspective”? Express your thoughts and feelings when there’re opportunities so that others may also empathise with you.
  6. Express your thoughts and feelings when there’re opportunities so that others may also empathise with you.
  7. Finally, sum up by paraphrasing your understanding of the contents gathered from the conversation.

When we practise the "quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger” principle of engagement with others, this world will certainly become a better place for all; particularly in the workplace where we spend so much of our time in.

We would love to hear what other suggestions you have to engage in real conversations. Share them with us at!

Have a burning question that you always wanted to ask our OD Doctors, Dr. Lily Cheng and Dr. Peter Cheng? Do email us at and we’ll reply you within 5 working days. The featured question in our Ask The OD Doctors section will receive a mystery gift from us!