As I have been recently facilitating a number of leadership development coaching sessions I’ve been speaking to a lot of leaders about ‘difficult’ conversations. They are the conversations that:
(a) You don’t know how or where to start
(b) You’re worried about the outcome
(c) You can’t quite find the words
(d) You feel you’ve ‘messed up’ in the past
So you hope that if you avoid the conversation, the problem might go away. (A clue: it won’t).
So ask yourself this:
What’s to be gained from having this conversation?
What could we potentially lose if we have this conversation?
This is clearly an area that a lot of us could get better at both at work and in our personal lives – which is why there are so many books written on this subject (Tough conversations; Crucial Conversations, Fierce conversations…. You name it, there’s a book!)
And I would say it’s a topic that comes up in some shape or form with most of the leaders and teams I work with and it’s been one of the most challenging areas of work for me personally.
Much as I hate to generalise or stereotype it’s something we Brits seem to be particularly poor at, for some reason. When I work with other Europeans they often despair of our total inability to ‘say it as it is’.
So why do we find it so difficult?
The most common reasons are:
- A strong need to be liked (yep, that was mine!)
- Fear of conflict (psychological or physical)
But where do those beliefs come from? Often we’re brought up to believe:
- I must be nice
- I must be supportive
- Don’t rock the boat
- Don’t make personal remarks
You’ll have your own script. And whilst these phrases might seem to serve us well some of the time, we have to ask:
‘In this situation, in what way is this belief serving me (or others) well?’
If the answer is ‘it’s not’ then there’s work to be done.
Here’s my story. Wanting to be liked made me a great supportive coach. But most leaders want to be challenged. They want their thinking to be challenged, they want honest feedback about their impact and their blind spots; they want to be stretched to the edge of their comfort zone and beyond and they want somebody to ‘say it as it is’ to them with what is sometimes beautifully described as ‘fearless compassion’.
So to be a better coach I had to get over my desire to be liked and focus on the need to ‘speak my truth’ to serve my clients and their organisations in the best possible way.
At first it was hard.
I took a lot of deep breaths before speaking.
At times, I screwed up, misread a situation, got the wrong end of the stick or was too focused on my own ‘stuff’ rather than the person in front of me.
But I believe it was Woody Allen who said ‘if you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative’.
So I keep on going!!
And that is where preparation is the key to making a good start. Now, I’m not saying you should prepare a script but you do need to be clear on:
- The purpose of the conversation
- The outcome you want as a result of the conversation
- How long you need for the conversation
- What will happen after the conversation (immediately after and in the longer term)
Once you’re clear on that, I’ve found that one of the best things to do is to practise saying out loud the things you have written down. You can do that with a friend, a colleague or a coach. Or you can simply practise saying it out loud when you are driving, doing the washing up (well, that works for me!) or anywhere else. There’s something about saying the words over and over again a few times which helps us become more comfortable with what we need to say.
So you’ve done your preparation and it’s time for The Conversation…..
Remember, it’s a two way street.
So you’ve done your preparation and practised out loud. The two of you are in a room together
So start by:
- Outlining your reasons for having the conversation
- Explaining what is at stake
- Sharing your thoughts and feelings on the issue (I think/I feel NOT you make me think/feel….)
- Explaining that you are looking for a solution and mutual understanding
- Ask for a response from the other person
- SHUT UP AND LISTEN! And allow some silence for reflection
- Explore options to help you move forward
- Agree actions.
Like many things, the more we practise the easier these difficult conversations will become. But if we do nothing….. well, you know the answer to that!
So here are the three ways to master difficult conversations:
- Understand your beliefs and where they come from (and decide if you need to ‘re-visit’ some of them if they are not serving you well)
Once you do this a few times, you’ll find conversations become less difficult and easier to have ‘in the moment’.