Group of young, diverse people engage in pleasant conversation at a boardroom table.

Respectful Workplace Conversations: 10 Simple Ways To Convey Respect

Respectful workplace conversations are an integral part of a respectful workplace. They deepen the connections between co-workers, support creativity and innovation, and help create an inclusive workplace culture.

There are many simple things you can do to ensure that your conversations are positive and productive. These strategies are especially important when you are speaking with someone whose first language, or cultural background, differs from your own.

1. Do less talking and more listening

When you're talking, your mind is focused on YOU.  You're mentally occupied with the hunt for words and gestures to express yourself.

When you're listening, your mind is focused on the other person.  You hear their opinions and observe their gestures, body language, and actions. Listening shows the other person that you respect them and have a genuine interest in their thoughts and insights.

Active listening can be a challenge, especially if the topic is heated, or the conversation involves disagreement. But those are the times when listening is the most important! Give your full attention to the speaker. Listen without interrupting. And provide feedback after they have finished speaking.  Briefly recap what they have told you. This can help identify misunderstandings quickly, so you can clear them up before they escalate.

2. Slow down

Speaking too quickly is a common problem and a tough - but important - habit to overcome. The faster you talk, the harder the other person must struggle to absorb the meaning of what you're saying.  This increases the chance of a misunderstanding.

Speed talking also goes hand-in-hand with rambling. The faster you talk, the more likely you are to keep talking, without leaving pauses for others to jump in.

Lastly, talking too quickly makes you seem frantic, rushed, and stressed. Because we naturally speak more quickly when we're excited, speed talking can make even simple, benign topics feel like a crisis.

Slowing things down makes the conversation more meaningful (and pleasant) for listeners, and can help keep difficult conversations from emotionally escalating. You don't need to speak so slowly that you sound boring and monotone. Just take the pace down a notch or two!

You may find it helpful to focus on enunciating when you are speaking. And be conscious of your breathing. Pause on your inhales. This will slow you down and help you relax.

3. Ditch the buzzwords

Business buzzwords only hold meaning for a small group of 'insiders' so the more jargon you use, the less inclusive your conversations are.

Remember that the purpose of talking is not to show off your fancy language skills - it's to effectively communicate. You want everyone to understand what you're saying, so ditch the jargon. And don't use complicated terms when there are clear, everyday words that mean the same thing.

Simple is always best.


Diverse co-workers enjoying a coffee together.

Are unconscious biases getting in the way of respectful workplace conversations?

Unconscious beliefs affect our attitudes and our behaviours, including how we speak to each other. Unconscious Bias Training Online includes practical strategies to help participants identify and overcome their biases, and support a respectful, inclusive workplace.

4. Mirror the body language and tone of the other person

Only 7% of the feelings and opinions we exchange during a conversation are the result of talking.  93% of what we take away from a conversation comes from body language, intonation, tone, sighs, etc.

Pay attention to the body language and tone of the person you're speaking to. Mirroring the communication style of the other person will help them feel more relaxed and comfortable. For example, if they speak softly, make sure you speak with a similar volume level. And if they maintain a distance from you, respect their personal space.

5. Avoid slang and use humour cautiously

A slang word, expression, or gesture may have a clear meaning to you, but it may not mean anything to the person you're talking to. Or it may mean something entirely different (and perhaps offensive) to them. As a result, using slang can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

Humour is also very audience specific.  Something that seems funny to some people not be amusing to others.  And unfortunately, many jokes rely on the use of offensive and demeaning stereotypes.

There are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to using humour in the workplace. And we know that sharing a laugh can help build rapport between people, so no one is advocating for a dry, humour-less world. That said, you should think before you speak.

Don't share stories or jokes that rely on stereotypes or ridicule. And if you're not 100% sure your joke will be appreciated, keep it to yourself. Err on the side of caution.

6. DON'T assume that you are understood

There are many reasons why someone may not admit that they're confused – politeness, embarrassment, and boredom – to name a few. To verify that you are being clearly understood:

Write things down, especially complex processes and items that require follow up.

Summarize key points at the end of the conversation. It may also be helpful to also do a quick summary mid-conversation, especially if you're are moving from one topic to another.

Ask the person if they understand. If their facial expressions, body language, or comments, make you suspect that you've lost them, press pause.  Politely ask if they have any questions or require clarification.

Young overweight Asian woman at her desk at work.

Education plays an important role in fostering respectful workplace conversations

The Respectful Workplace is an online course that explores both acceptable and unacceptable workplace attitudes and behaviours. Participants learn how to identify situations involving discrimination, harassment, or bullying, and how to respond appropriately. Interactive exercises help learners gain practical insights into ways to build and support a more inclusive workplace.

7. Don't pretend to understand 

When it comes to miscommunication, the street runs both ways. People may not understand you - and conversely, you may struggle to understand them.

Don't fake it. If you need someone to slow down, explain something again, or clarify a point, say so. There's no shame in admitting that you don't understand. In fact, the person you're speaking with will probably appreciate your honesty.

Note: If there is a language barrier, it's okay to politely acknowledge that you need someone to repeat their words.

8. Give your full, uninterrupted attention

Multi-tasking is the enemy of effective communication. Besides distracting you from the topic of discussion, it demonstrates a lack of R-E-S-P-E-C-T for the person you are speaking with. So put your phone away. Answering an incoming call is an obvious no-no. But even having your phone in front of you, or your laptop open, feels like you're only halfway into the conversation.

It's also important to set aside enough time. Leave 15 minute "buffers" between scheduled meetings and don't try to squeeze impromptu conversations into a busy day. There's nothing worse than talking to someone who's constantly checking the time and clearly in a rush to get to the next thing.

Always give the person you are speaking with your full attention.

9. Recognize your triggers

Sometimes people are going to disagree with you. That's life.  And there are entire books - and courses - and podcasts - about conflict in the workplace and how to handle it. Ultimately, we should all work on being receptive to differing opinions and non-reactive during difficult conversations.

Still, we're only human and emotions are part of our biology. That's why it's important to identify your triggers and recognize when you're beginning to feel angry, agitated, or frustrated.  You can't control what someone else says or does, but you have 100% control over how you respond.

When you feel your temperature rising, something as simple as taking a few deep breaths can help. If that doesn't work, and you sense that the conversation is going downhill, it's better to exit the situation than risk losing your cool.

Remember that disagreement does not have to come with disrespect. Polite exit lines may include statements like:

"You've given me a lot to think about. Let's wrap things up for today and set up a followup conversation."

"I hear what you're saying and I value your opinion, although I don't necessarily agree. Let's take the day to digest the conversation and speak again tomorrow."

10. Apologize if necessary

So you had a heated conversation, or perhaps you inadvertently hurt someone's feelings. Now what?

You can't change what has already happened - and you may not want to. Truthfully, you may feel like your words were completely justified or taken out of context. And you may be right. But that's not the point.

If someone is offended, or feels uncomfortable or embarrassed by something you said, you need to apologize. Acknowledge their feelings and assure them that it won't happen again.

Don't think of apologizing as 'losing' or 'giving in'. It's not. Apologizing simply means that you value the relationship and sincerely regret hurting the person's feelings.