Third grade teacher Kyle Schwartz decided one day to write a simple, open-ended question on the chalkboard.

In her wildest dreams, she couldn't have anticipated what would follow.

No, the third-graders didn't whip tomatoes at the board (my go-to-move in third grade).

Just a five-word sentence for students to complete:

"I wish my teacher knew..."

While the chalk dust wasn't heavy enough to choke up Schwartz, the responses were:

"I wish my teacher knew my dad works two jobs and I don't see him much."

"I wish my teacher knew that I'm smarter than she thinks I am"

"I wish my teacher knew that my family and I live in a shelter."

Schwartz, astonished by responses that were heartbreaking and heartwarming, mind-opening and eye-opening, began sharing the responses on Twitter.

And a viral sensation was born.

Teachers around the world embraced the question, asking it of their own students and prompting the call-to-action #IWishMyTeacherKnew.

Teachers uncovered issues like poverty, adult absence, grief, loneliness, and much more.

Some notes were just uplifting, like this one (unedited):

"I wish my teacher knew I love my famile.."

The net result of all the notes was deeper, more understanding relationships between teacher and student.

Schwartz told the New York Times: "I really want families to know how intentional teachers are about creating a sense of community and creating relationships with kids. Kids don't learn when they don't feel safe or valued."

Now, what if we took this same quote and played a word substitution game, like this:

"I really want families to know how intentional bosses are about creating a sense of community and creating relationships with employees. Employees don't learn when they don't feel safe or valued."

Guess what?

The sentiment is just as powerful and true in a business context.

What would happen if you asked your employees to complete the sentence "I wish my boss knew..." ?

I'd wager the answers would be equally eye-opening, and would be an entry point to learn more about your employee (and vice versa).

In other words, the foundation of a strengthened relationship.

It would be the start of building a deeper sense of community and helping employees feel safe and valued.

Now, granted, plenty of trust would have to be in place before you'd get such poignant answers. These aren't innocent-eyed and brutally truthful third grade students we're talking about here, after all.

But thinking and caring enough to ask the question in the first place can build trust in and of itself.

And don't stop there.

Here are other ways to get the conversation going and to learn more about the unique blueprint of everyone on your team:

  • P:60. No, it's not the latest workout fad. It stands for "Personal Sixty." Before the start of each team meeting, ask everyone to take 60 seconds to share something personal that's going on with them outside of work. You'd be amazed what you learn--and the conversations it will start.
  • Show warmth and an interest to connect. The troops can read it from a mile away when you don't, and they'll stay a mile away too.
  • Enjoy them. Finding out more about each employee means you'll find more to like. Even for the one's that just don't match your personality, you can find a few things to enjoy about who they are. Then show it.
  • Have compassion and move towards them in a crisis. Times of adversity (either on the business or for the employee personally) are good times to draw closer and open up deeper communication.
  • Over-communicate with them to evoke the rule of reciprocity. Showing how important communication is to you will prompt them to communicate right back.
  • Have a plan for travel time. Make a conscious effort to use travel time with an employee to get to know one another. It's so easy to turn such trips into a non-stop work fest. Resist the temptation.

Start with the magic question "I wish my boss knew..." and employ these other tactics to learn even more about your employees. No doubt you'll soon learn you're building better relationships as well.