Difficult conversations are difficult

Can you be a blank slate? Can you leave behind your opinions and judgements, history and personality when it comes time to have a difficult conversation with a colleague or friend? The blanker we can be, the more we serve the other person and the outcome we want to achieve. 

Difficult conversations, by definition, are difficult. They are characterised by their strong emotions, difference of opinions or high stakes. Defining the ‘outcome’ we want to achieve for them is necessarily in a category of its own, different from identifying the outcome of a standard report or presentation which is largely in your own control or even facilitating a meeting which is slightly lower down the control scale, but still affords you some reasonable degree of directional influence.

(If your team could benefit from some support and training in dealing with their difficult conversations, please get in touch or check out our Difficult Conversations workshop)

There are three major challenges we’re presented with before we even start a difficult conversation. Firstly, we often don’t have any natural training for uncomfortable communications the way that we do for daily communications. Few of us have a template. It’s rarely modelled well in our families or formally taught in schools so each challenging encounter that we face takes us by surprise, requiring us to reinvent the wheel and take an experimental approach. 

Secondly, it’s unlikely in a conflict situation that we can think clearly and consider our options effectively. We are not biologically wired to handle confrontation well. As most of us would be aware, billions of years of evolution has our neurology set up to fight, flee or freeze under pressure.  It bears reminding however, this is no trite, easily overcome human trait. This is deeply embedded for survival purposes. Being intellectually aware that this is not a sabre-toothed tiger we are facing does nothing to reduce the power of that instinct. Even if we could think the words “I’m undergoing an amygdala hijack” in the middle of one, it will have little to no physical or mental effect.

Finally, of course, we are usually unprepared for these situations. We’re off-guard, wandering along, getting on with business, when we’re suddenly blind-sided by someone’s reaction to us, our work or our words and we’re left floundering for a response.

This 4-part mini-series is about setting outcomes for our business communications, but I think it would be fair to say that unless you’re in a role that gives you daily experience with conflict, this is enormously difficult to do on the spot. It is easier in the first instance to practice by way of prepared meetings with difficult people or situations, to get some practice before applying the techniques in impromptu scenarios.

So we have a point of difference with someone. They aren’t cooperating or performing, they’re upset by something we’ve said or vice versa. We have opposing needs or don’t agree with each other’s plans or values. Setting an outcome under these circumstances is by no means straight forward but cannot be skipped as the primary and foundational step of the process. The outcome is going to need to be physical and emotional in nature. We need to achieve something for the business, but we also need a longer-term working relationship with this person.

The size and scale of the outcome can vary hugely of course. It could be as simple as “I need them to stop dominating the meeting and let others talk” to “we need to come to an agreement on a trade deal to avoid global economic depression.” Yet even while the daily interactions don’t carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, they cause harm and tension, fatigue and lost productivity. When we’re worried about the situation, we’re not fully engaged with our jobs. To that degree therefore, workplace tensions can cause death by a thousand cuts. They seem small and insignificant compared to international conflicts but undermine everybody’s performance and hence results for the organisation, customer and shareholder.

We’ve identified that there are two areas that we need to set goals for the meeting: the physical outcome we seek and the strengthening of the relationships for the longer term. Let’s explore each.

The most common difficulties I’m brought in to help resolve are behavioural. She’s not performing; he’s being obstinate; she’s condescending; he’s good at his job but sabotaging relationships cross functionally or with clients. In fact, of the 7 deadlies, pride, more commonly expressed in the workforce as arrogance, causes some of the greatest difficulties that I hear of regularly in the workplace.

The problem, however, is that asking someone to stop being so damn condescending is that (a) it’s going to clearly put their defences up and (b) it’s too broad to be meaningful. You need specific words, specific behaviours, specific instances, specific examples. You need to collect evidence as a starting point – dates, times, meetings, conversations. Exactly what happened, why is it being interpreted by others as hurtful or irritating? What are the implications for your business or unit, their relationships and career? And what specific behaviours need to replace the current one? I hate to be cliched because the whole point of this series is to bring a fresh and thoughtful perspective to business communications but there is no getting away from the fact they may simply not be aware of their behaviour and how it’s affecting the people around them and you are doing them, as well as your business, a service by having the courage to bring it up. 

Part A therefore is to get pinpoint clear on the problem statement. What specific behaviour or issue needs addressing.

Part B. The emotional side requires a defter hand and here there are 3 questions that will give us the greatest chance of sorting through our own feelings about the situation so we can have the conversation with as little baggage on our side as possible:

  1. What’s my intention? Is some part of me wanting to admonish them, punish them, be right, vent my own feelings, avoid conflict or simply ‘win’ under any circumstances. If we can be honest with ourselves about any of these motives, simply bringing them into the light of our own awareness will help to diffuse the need. From there we have a chance to flip the script and ask a different question. What can I learn from the situation? What could I ask to understand their point of view? How can we work together to get the results required? What support or resources may be helpful?
  2. How do I separate the facts from the stories? Beware the conclusions we draw about another person’s intentions or character based on limited facts. Make sure the conversation revolves around their actual actions and the tangible and measurable outcomes, not your or anybody else’s assumptions or psychological assessment of them.
  3. Which brings us to our third question, how much do I really understand them and their point of view? What do I know about them, their background and their experiences? Remember, if you had been born with their genes, into their circumstances, in their country, with their parents, education and influences, you would BE THEM! You would not be doing any behaviours differently from what they are doing right now. So what can you learn about them that will help create a constructive outcome for the conversation?

In short therefore, the more we can get laser sharp focused on the specific actions that need address and then come to the conversation with as few pre-conceived ideas as possible and a truly open and explorative mindset, the more we serve them, the company and indeed ourselves and our team, with the potential of a positive outcome.

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