Why complex and difficult conversations by business leaders can be trusted

I recently posted an article on one of the social media channels, which provoked discussion across leadership and importantly the difficult discussions that leaders try to avoid.

All leaders need to have difficult conversations at some point in time, whether it’s telling an employee they aren’t getting a raise or a promotion, disciplining poor performance, or even firing someone.

It is truly quite unbelievable why people put off these conversations? How does this then affect them psychologically?

At one level the answer is quite simple: human beings don’t like conflict and take great steps to avoid it at all cost. In businesses that we advise we observe far too many managers fail to address difficult conversations, putting them off for 15 months, rather than having a 15-minute challenging interaction.

In their own minds, and this is where the real problem begins, many line managers and leaders, knowing they have a challenging conversation in the future, start to play a continuous disaster movie over and over in their heads.

Every possible negative ‘what-if’-scenario plays out in their imagination and consequently, they start to feel under threat before any actual interaction has even taken place. This imaginary narrative increases the strain on an already difficult situation. If we assume that all parties involved are of a similar mindset, then the potential for failure in this conversation is always probable to be high and generally, the conversation will start and end badly.

It is an understatement to say that we are living in times of great turmoil, polarization, and change. It is a time when unresolved conflicts permeate our lives, our home/office workplaces, our politics, our community. Very few systems are immune to the tension conflict generates.

We watch helpless, as countries use war as a strategy for settling disagreements.
Our news sources are glutted with escalating reports of physical violence used as a method to mediate disputes.
Our schools have become battlegrounds as students grapple with ways to handle conflicting emotions and divergent points of view.
Our airlines sometimes get diverted due to a passenger who does not have the skills to deal with their anger. And tragically sometimes our workplaces break out in violence.

Most of the time, conflicts come to light when the people involved are so reactive that they generate strong emotions in everyone involved, even those witnessing the conflict. Whether those emotions are hot and violent or simply the cold chill of disconnected relationships, most of us shy away from conflict because we don’t know how to get beyond the fight-or-flight response our brains are hardwired for.

Some of us can’t imagine another way. We’re not comfortable witnessing conflict, or experiencing it, nor is it our first impulse to dive in and address it. And for those of us who are drawn to conflict, we still may feel that we lack the skills to handle conflict effectively.

Generally, our associations with conflict aren’t positive and we either stuff our reactions or overreact and complicate matters. But conflict can actually, have an upside, whether it’s in a personal or professional setting. Properly worked with, conflict can spur innovation, creativity, and a better understanding of issues and people.

Having the capacity to deal with conflict is the key to maximizing its upside. Whether the focus is delivering a difficult message, diffusing a tense situation, giving tough performance feedback, or confronting insensitive behaviour, most of us feel some reluctance when faced with having challenging conversations that have the potential to escalate into conflict.

People often have misconceptions about components of handling conflict:

The best thing is to be objective and stick to the facts. While objectivity and facts are important, many times during a challenging conversation, our feelings surface whether we want them to or not. Feelings are a component of any situation whether it’s personal or professional.

Simply sticking to the facts can block the opportunity to deal with both thoughts and emotions. Recent research shows that people often harden their position when only dealing with the facts anyway. To effectively deal with a difficult situation we need to talk about our feelings and reactions in a healthy way and without blaming the other person.

If you show empathy, it means you agree with the other person’s point of view. There is a difference between empathy and agreement. It’s good to let the other person know that we understand what they are saying and to acknowledge that we understand their position is true for them.

But acknowledging that is simply respecting the person, not implying that you agree. Using phrases such as “I understand what you’re feeling, but I have a different perspective than you,” allows you to honor the person’s point of view without yielding to it. While it is difficult to acknowledge the other person’s point of view when you are angry or hurt, there are communication tools that can allow you to keep your cool, even in the most emotionally charged situations including detaching personally from what’s being said to minimize defensiveness and optimize empathy in a way that inspires trust.

8 tips for managing difficult conversations:

Be direct.

When having a difficult conversation, be direct and get to the point quickly. This is not the time for feedback sandwiches or an excess of compliments. Both of these feedback techniques will mask the point of the conversation and lessen its impact. Difficult conversations become even more difficult when the delivery is muddled. While it might seem like you’re being too harsh diving right into the critique, you’re actually doing the other person a favor. Most of the time, the person you’re talking to knows that a critique is coming, so rather than dancing around the subject, just get to it.

Be specific.

Be honest and thorough with your feedback, and fully clarify why you’re having the conversation. Offer as many concrete examples as possible so the person understands you’re not just pulling things out of thin air. The more clarity you can provide, the better the critique will be received.

Plan out the conversation.

This is not a conversation you want to have in the spur of the moment. You want to think of what you’re going to say, as well as anticipate how the other person might react. Think of the questions they might ask and have answers prepared. The more prepared you are, the easier it will be to stay even-tempered and not get flustered and therefore deliver a more solid critique.

Watch your language.

The actual words you use during the conversation matter. You must outline the critique and the reason you’re having the conversation, but don’t stop there. You’ll also want to talk about the outcome you’d like to see. If you’re disciplining an employee for poor team performance, explain that to them and also talk about what it would look like when team relations are strong. Illustrating what a positive outcome looks like gives the employee something solid to work towards, and helps them understand why they’re being disciplined.

Offer a solution.

Nothing is worse than delivering a critique and leaving it just at that. You’ll want to clearly explain the reason for the conversation, the specific critique, and then offer suggestions to improve. If you’re telling an employee that they aren’t getting a raise, explain why and let them know what they need to work on to make that raise a possibility. Even if the conversation is to fire an employee, you should still offer a suggestion that will help them improve in their next job.

Manage your emotions.

You want to have the conversation in an even tone and keep it professional. Don’t let your emotions dictate your delivery. If you get emotional, so will the other person. This is especially important when the conversation is with an employee who you care greatly for or work closely with.
In this situation, take a step back and remove the relationship from the equation. It can help if you simply look at things from a fact-based standpoint, and focus solely on that. When emotions start to take over, remind yourself that the more in control you are of your emotions, the better you’ll be able to deliver the message.

Be empathetic.

While your delivery of the message should be stoic, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t empathize. Think of how the other person will feel during the conversation, and allow them to process their emotions.
If you see they’re really struggling with what you’ve said, pause for a minute while they collect themselves. Clearly explain why you’re having the conversation to help them fully understand where you’re coming from. If they’re really taking the news poorly, remind them that you’re delivering this critique to make them better, and you want to see them succeed.

Allow the other person to ask questions.

Questions serve a double purpose. Asking questions helps the other person process what’s happened, and it allows you to clarify and solidify details of the conversation. If you aren’t sure that the other person fully comprehended the conversation, ask clarifying questions to check their understanding.

Final thought, one of the greatest skills managers and individuals can build is the art of listening well — to listen to themselves and their instincts about difficult situations and to the other person in order to really understand their point of view and perspective.

For managers willing to step up to the challenge, the results can be far-reaching, including quicker resolution of performance issues, better work relationships, fewer grievances, reduced tension, and fewer corporate crises.

We really must build the capacity to have the challenging conversations we have often avoided. “In these challenging times, the more we can master and model for others how to have challenging conversations the better our workplaces, our families, and our society will be. The choice seems really clear: do we build the capacity to deal with each other in healthy ways, or do we see the world we care about to deteriorate in unresolved conflicts and violence?”

As a famous American psychologist, George Kohl, once said:

“A hallmark of high-performance leaders is the ability to influence others through all levels and types of communication, from simple interactions to difficult conversations and more complex conflicts, in order to achieve greater team and organizational alignment. High performing leaders are able to unite diverse team members by building common goals and even shared emotions by engaging in powerful and effective dialogue.”

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