How to have a difficult conversation and why would we want to do that?
Before we delve into this subject let’s investigate what is a “difficult conversation”.
As it has not been particularly easy to find a definition, let me share my interpretation: a difficult conversation is any situation where expectations, opinions or perspectives of the involved parties differ. More importantly for various reasons (e.g. both parties care or have vested interest) there can be some powerful emotions involved (such as anger) clouding logical thinking.
In addition to this, for whatever reason the involved parties fear to bring up these differences – e.g. not to be confrontational or cause frictions in the business or personal relationship.
If this definition resonates with you, let us consider why, contrary to our instinct, it may be worthwhile to engage in difficult conversations?
Benefits of Difficult Conversations
In the 21st century, at a time of geopolitical uncertainty and digital transformation this may be the proverbial straw that could break the camel’s back (especially if your “camel” has underlying financial issues).
On a personal level, you would want to share your perspective e.g. how the team could work smarter not harder, to showcase that your skills, sharp mind and creative thinking bring unique value in the era of automation.
What if your manager or business partner is not that interested in listening or hearing about our ideas? Why could that be?
Strategies to Deal with Differing Opinions
There can be many reasons: cultural differences, emotions (e.g. fear) driven by culture of blame, personality traits, a personal situation and so on.
Whilst there are many reasons for not sharing, disregarding or choosing not to hear differing opinions, the outcome seems to be the same – lost opportunities.
Bringing differing perspectives to the table is not an issue per se. The issue, however, is the perception that this conversation is going to cause a conflict, confrontation and result in negative consequences.
So, what are the strategies for difficult conversations?
You may be surprised to hear you have few options to choose from, such us: avoid, dominate or collaborate.
Let us consider each of them individually.
If you are an employee and not feeling comfortable sharing your knowledge, it may be that at some point you could be seen as a non-contributor, not to mention that the accumulated stress may also impact your mental health.
If you are a manager who struggles with difficult conversations e.g. concerning a non-performance – avoidance may impact performance of your team and your own mental health. This strategy is seen as a loss-loss situation as neither you, the team nor the business win…
However, you may decide to avoid a difficult conversation, at least for now. The reason – to collect more information and data so you don’t jump the gun. By collecting more data (not just relaying on the performance figures) you may find out that the “under-performer” is trying to improve the situation. Having a conversation at this point may only demotivate this person.
This example is just to remind you to stop and reflect before you engage in a conversation.
In some cases the situation may change and you don’t need to raise this issue. “Do nothing” option sometimes does work, however if the situation does not improve you need to step in and resolve it.
Working in Oil and Gas industry most of my life I have witnessed execution of this tactic first-hand. There are specific situations when this strategy is not only applicable but also desired, e.g. crisis situations.
Also cultural background may stipulate specific behaviours expected from leaders or people in position of power. This may be perceived by foreigners as confrontational e.g. expressive (seen as yelling) Mediterranean, direct (seen as aggressive) Eastern Europeans, etc. These behaviours may not necessarily be what they seem.
Whilst domination has its uses, this is my least advisable long-term strategy, where consequences are similar regardless of geographical location. It leaves teams and individuals demotivated and stripped of the capability to think for themselves. You create an army of orders-taking human-robots devoid of innovative thinking.
If you choose dominate consider leading with intent.
“People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”
On this note, I feel it is appropriate to move to collaboration.
In the latest poll about managing difficult conversations, vast majority of Simplarity’s readers voted for “Collaborate”.
Perhaps not surprisingly, as human beings are social creatures and prefer collaboration to survive and thrive.
Compromise is seen by some as a form of collaboration, perhaps rightly so. In my eyes compromise is no-win / no win situation, as no one truly feels fulfilled.
As my intention was not to write an academic, white paper on collaboration but share with you a practical approach on how you can “clear” difficult conversations – let us swiftly move on.
CLEAR TM has been developed by Simplarity – Dr Alexandra Rogacheva and myself, based on years of experience collaborating with people from various cultural and educational backgrounds as well as at different stages of their careers.
CLEAR TM is an acronym for:
This tool has been designed to guide anyone – in professional and personal instance, who may struggle with difficult conversations.
There are a couple of business examples for your consideration below.
Line Employee Approach
First example: Imagine you are a line employee and want to bring to the table a new idea. Here is how you may apply this model:
- Communicate – arrange a meeting with the appropriate party / parties to discuss. Before you do, choose the best communication channel that suits the type of message you intend to deliver and the results you expect, e.g. if you want an immediate answer you may want to choose face to face or virtual meeting over an e-mail, etc.
If your manager is not easily approachable – you can build the conversation based on shared objective e.g. “I have an idea how we can increase revenue / deliver this project faster / improve satisfaction of our customers”, etc.
At this point it would be appropriate to ask for “permission” e.g. “Would this be something that would interest you?”, etc.
- Listen – this is when you either get the “permission” to share your idea or … your secret may be safe with you forever. If you don’t receive an immediate permission, don’t give up just yet. Use your senses for non-verbal cues e.g. tone of voice, body language as your manager may just deal with other priorities or the time is not appropriate.
If your efforts have failed – well, at least you have tried. This may not be helpful but trust me, it is not you who loses here. The loser is the business which does not recognise the value and subject matter expertise the front-line worker brings.
- Explore – if you gauged the interest, explain your idea and explore your manager’s appetite to pursue.
- Accept – whatever the decision of you manager’s is – accept it. There will be times when your idea may be disregarded for various reasons e.g. misaligned with business strategy, etc. If at this point the conversation is over – thank your manager for their time and interest. What if your manager takes credit for your idea? This is a subject for a new article, but this could suggest you may be indispensable.
- Resolve – your idea is aligned with your manager’s vision and company strategy. It is time to collaborate, you can say: “I’m pleased you see the value here, how can we take it forward” … Let them lead unless you are invited to share your perspective on execution.
Congratulations – you have smashed it.
At this point you take the assigned role and deliver what you committed to.
Second example: imagine that you are a manager who needs to address e.g. non-performing issues. How can you use this model to your advantage?
- Communicate – similarly, to the above – arrange a meeting to discuss, and before doing that choose the best communication channel that suits the type of message you intend to deliver and the results you expect, e.g. if you want an immediate answer you may want to choose face to face meeting or virtual conference over an e-mail, etc.
You may want to consider choosing an informal set up, a non-intimidating space (which is not your office) where you can have a confidential conversation.
When you meet your team member, start with establish connection e.g. by asking how they are doing. This way, at the beginning of the conversation you are exploring for any underlying issues which you were not aware of.
With this knowledge you are better equipped to ask your question. Do so in a non-threatening way, e.g. “Ed, your performance has been lower than expected, is everything ok?”, or “Is there any specific reason for this situation?”. Or perhaps start by giving them the opportunity to be self-critical by asking: “Ed, how do you think you performed?”
People are often more self-critical than their supervisors!
- Listen – give your team member time to reflect. If you are an extrovert stop (count to 20 – in your mind, of course). Delay jumping to conclusions. Maybe they were not aware of the issue or perhaps there is something else that you have not been told yet, which may shed more light on the situation, e.g. personal concerns, external challenges, etc.
- Explore – find the root-cause problem by asking open questions – why, when, who, how, etc.
- Accept – whatever your findings are, accept and acknowledge them by saying e.g. “I didn’t appreciate you were so overloaded”, “If I knew you were not aware, I would have had this conversation with you sooner”, “Thank you for bringing this to my attention, this supplier has failed us in the past”, etc.
- Resolve – collaborate with your team member to determine win-win solution/s. At this point you may propose actions or decide to invite your team member to collaborate by asking: “What would have to happen to have this fixed?”
You may have to follow up on the progress, but this was a win-win conversation where you addressed an issue without “running over” your team member.
Those of you who struggle with difficult conversations – I hope you found this article helpful and if you need more guidance with your challenge/s – contact the Simplarity team for assistance (@SimplarityUK).
If you are proficient in applying emotional intelligence in conversations – I hope this article was inspiring or at least thought provoking. And if you have any different perspective then please share your feedback.