A common topic of conversation (not a difficult one) at the moment, and that has been discussed for some time now, is how to have difficult conversations.
There is a natural resistance to difficult conversations. In fact, you are invited right now to think of reasons why you believe people do not have their difficult conversation. Maybe it is what you do to not have the conversation you know you need to have, but that you have been avoiding?
Have you done that?
What types of answers did you come up with? Maybe it is because people generally seek to avoid what they might perceive to be a confrontation. Maybe the organisational policies and procedures make it more difficult? Maybe it is the age old challenge of a lack of time.
Now, you are invited to think of a time that you did have a difficult conversation, maybe with a direct report for example or with a Manager that had not been managing? Think back to that situation.
What was going on for you? What were you thinking and feeling?
Maybe you were feeling frustrated, maybe you felt uncomfortable or felt that you were just listening to excuses or felt that the other person was not taking ownership or responsibility. Maybe you just wanted to tell them straight but you professionalism dictated that this was not an option. Most probably by the end of the conversation you were emotionally drained.
Now, take a moment to think what was going on for the other person?
What do you think might have been going through their mind? You might think that the odd person was playing the system. But if we are honest that is not true for most people, even if the occasional one. You might have felt that the other person was not revealing their true emotions, that they felt under attack, that they did not know how to deal with the situation in the most adult way, that they were becoming defensive or even aggressive.
How do you feel now?
Maybe (I said ‘maybe’), now you have taken a moment to walk in the other persons shoes, you are feeling a little more empathy.
This taking a mindful moment to reflect, taking a moment to breathe and to focus, to think that the other person is just like you but facing a different challenge might just allow you to take the time that is needed to think about how best to prepare for the conversation you know is necessary. What might be the best possible outcome for you both? It might not be a true win-win, or an ideal outcome, but it is the best one that can be achieved at that moment in time.
With all the thoughts, feelings, observations and thoughts that go hand in hand with these uncomfortable situations, it is no wonder that many people might choose to avoid having difficult conversations. It is an understandable human reaction. But just because it is understandable does not mean it is useful or helpful.
What are the consequences, however, of not having difficult conversations?
Maybe a team is demotivated because the one poor performer is not dealt with from a capability or conduct point of view. Maybe your job is infinitely more difficult because you are doing the job that your Managers should be doing. Rather than supporting them in having difficult conversations with their team, you find that you are dealing with the consequences of them not having those conversation, maybe you have inherited a poor performer that has had several previous line managers that have never dealt with the situation and now there is a legacy, an historical precedent, an expectation that has been set, but difficult to resolve. Maybe the department, or even the organisation, is suffering the consequences of avoiding conversations that are really open and honest. Even if this can be painful on occasion, if done in the right way, those conversations need and must take place. Unless people talk about feelings, values and behaviours levels of trust will never increase and organisation performance will not reach its full potential.
No-one can afford not to have these conversations, on a personal or organisational level. Issues and challenges need to be ‘nipped in the bud’. So, if we need to have these conversations how can we have them in the most appropriate and helpful way. In a way that does not evoke an ‘amygdala hijack’ on the part of the other person, which immediately results in a less useful and emotional response, but instead a logical and adult response.
It is important to focus on the proximal effect, what is happening in the room now, rather than focusing on the distol effect, what might happen after, outside the room. Very often our preoccupation with what might happen afterwards adds to our anxiety and might incline us to avoid the conversation. It is important, as mentioned, to take a moment, to pause, breathe and focus. Take time out to think about the conversation and prepare. Take a walk in the other person’s shoes and focus on the best possible outcome for both parties before the conversation takes place. This mindful reflection and pause is important.
We can also think about good high quality open questions. The ‘CREATE’ model by David Rock from the Quiet Leader, 2006, is an excellent model that generates excellent high quality open questions. The model stands for Current Reality, Exploring Alternatives and Tapping Energy. It is a model that supports coaching and creates the need to listen and thereby create rapport, but also encourages the other person to take responsibility.
Think carefully beforehand about the conversation and prepare in order to give you the best chance possible chance to stay calm. Do not allow emotions to dictate the outcome, but the willingness that both parties seek the best possible outcome.
In summary, two things are critical. Firstly, have the conversation. Secondly, remain calm.