Engage in difficult conversations; ones that are needed and matter the most

We often come across situations that we find challenging to engage in. Consider few scenarios:

Scenario 1. A senior executive is behaving in a dysfunctional way; his behavior is negatively impacting several people. But the business head procrastinates having the difficult conversation with him.

Scenario 2. A business leader strongly feels that a delivery head in projects does not have potential to grow beyond his current level, but refrains from sharing candid feedback with him.

Scenario 3. President of a business feels that his business head needs to be changed, despite the fact that the business is growing. Needless to say, he would have a valid reason for this change, but procrastinates the much needed honest conversation with the business head. He gives subtle hints, which do not help anyone.

Such scenarios are not uncommon and the people involved are not junior level employees. All of them are seasoned leaders with years of experience. Yet they find holding a difficult conversation daunting.

Holding a difficult conversation is a path that one often comes across, but dreads to tread!

Why do we hesitate engaging in these conversations?  Especially when they are most needed and matter the most.

First reason is the discomfort to handle emotions. Most difficult conversations involve feelings and emotions. Emotions can be in the form of silent withdrawal or a violent outburst or somewhere in between. Unfortunately, handling emotions is not an area of strength for many. Developing an ability to deal with emotions is the first step towards building the ability to engage in difficult conversation.

  • Preparation helps, prepare yourself as well as the other person for the difficult conversation. It’s important to select the right place and time for conversation. More importantly, intimate that it’s going to be a critical conversation.
  • Acknowledge the emotions: anger, grief or frustration, whatever be it. Don’t ignore them. If emotions are too severe and hampering a fruitful conversation, set up another time to resume discussion.
  • Have a hold on your own emotions, stay calm. This is probably the hardest part of having a difficult conversation, especially if the emotional outburst is directed at you.

Share your story and listen to the other person’s story. Most of the problems happen not because of facts, but the stories that we tell ourselves based on the fact. Let’s understand this with an example. Suppose I see two of my colleagues standing outside my office (few feet away) and chatting. I cannot hear what they are saying; I can only see them through my glass door. They are looking at me and laughing and talking, this goes on for few minutes. What’s the story that I may tell myself – “They are having fun, would like me to join.” Or “They are talking something negative about me and discussing what a fool I am” Or “they are talking about something else all together, it’s just a coincidence that they are looking towards me.”

The facts are same, but can tell different stories to myself. What story I tell myself depends on multiple factors, but same facts may result in different stories. Thus, two people having a difficult conversation may have the same facts, but would have completely different stories.

Sharing your story would help the other person understand where you are coming from. And hearing the other person’s story would help you get a better understanding of where he is coming from. Most importantly, if this step is done well, the other person would feel ‘heard’ and this goes a very long way in conversations.  

Steer the conversation to a common goal.  The last step is moving towards establishing a common or mutually acceptable goal. It may seem impossible in some cases. For that matter all the three scenarios outlined at the beginning seem to have no common goal at all. What common goal can the business unit head have with a senior executive whom he needs to fire because of his dysfunctional behavior? On the face of it, no! But, if the business unit head tries hard, he may be able to work out a solution. For example, a reasonable time may be given to the senior executive to look for another job and move on. But, in the meantime he has to immediately stop certain behaviors that he is currently displaying at work. Likewise, there could be other options that can be evaluated.

Unfortunately many a times, such conversations are procrastinated for so long that it becomes almost impossible to find any common goals. It ends up being lose-lose situation for both parties.

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