Facing into what feels like a tricky conversation is something that strikes dread into the hearts of many. In the last week alone, I’ve spoken with three of four people about things they feel they’d like to say, ought to say, would benefit from saying…. But still they can’t bring themselves to do it.
In some cases, there is a concern about how it will land and how the other person will feel. Occasionally we might over think the issue and come to the conclusion that perhaps expectations weren’t clear enough, or perhaps we think we may have got the wrong end of the stick or we might feel we just don’t have enough information to tackle the issue well, and therefore it’s best not to mention it. Research by Globis Ltd and PDC Consulting Ltd found that 80% of people were worried about an angry response and almost the same amount had concerns about making the relationship awkward.
With all that stacked against us, it’s no wonder we spend time mulling it over and wondering whether we have it in us to raise whatever the issue is. I guess what we also need to reflect on is the impact of NOT being bold enough to hold the conversation… and those stakes are often high, with things like continued poor performance, missed opportunity for development, forever misunderstood actions and relationships that reach angry bursting points or slowly fall away to nothing.
Susan Scott in her book Fierce Conversations say’s “While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a company, a relationship, or a life... any single conversation can.” And it is because of the huge power that an open, honest conversation can hold, that I believe we owe it to ourselves and others to put on our big pants and face into it!!
With the right mindset and some careful preparation, we can make great things happen. Opening the conversation in a planned way using carefully chosen language and the right tone of voice will get you off to a good start. Having difficult conversations is not about being rude, inappropriate or aggressive. Everything each of us says leaves an emotional wake and just because we are feeling anxious about the topic it doesn’t mean we have to be unpleasant when sharing what’s bothering us.
Time can then be invested in understanding the situation, sharing how we see things and are feeling, and asking with positive intent and a genuine curiosity for the viewpoint and feelings of the other person. We are all slaves to our inner voice which builds all manner of stories in our head about a situation and it’s not until we sit and discuss it with an open mind that we can begin to see other possible versions of the truth. Ask questions, listen, manage your emotions and allow each other the time and space to say what you need to. With all views on the table, we can move on, explore options to improve the situation and agree what happens next. It’s rare that all parties won’t benefit in some way from a resolution, so often we are all invested in choosing appropriate action.
I read a quote recently by Peter Bromberg that said, “When we avoid difficult conversations, we trade short term discomfort for long term dysfunction.” I thought back over many of the times I’ve personally avoided saying something that would have been better raised… whether it had been some developmental feedback for someone in my team, a struggle with a manager’s approach to work, or a friendship that was going awry. Saying nothing really can lead to long term dysfunction. I also recalled an occasion when a during a meeting with a very powerful - often feared and sometimes difficult to work with - senior leader at work about establishing a feedback culture across the organisation. She said “No one has ever offered me any feedback”. I responded by suggesting perhaps she had never asked. So, she asked! Colleagues in the room with us looked at me in desperation and nervousness. I agreed to reflect and asked if she’d reciprocate. A couple of weeks later, not without some trepidation on my part, we had a really useful and developmental conversation and established I believe, some mutual respect that served us both well.
It takes skill, it takes guts. It takes the desire to want the best for ourselves and others… but what it really takes is action. Go on you know you want to …!!