WE NEED TO TALK
Successfully managing that conversation you’ve been avoiding
A VitalSmarts poll shows
that 40% of people put off their scary
conversation for six months, and another
20% wait a year or more.
By Kimberly Paterson, CEC
The team was gathered for the monthly business development meeting. Cameron, the vice president of business development, was in high spirits based on a major win the week before. Sarah, one of the newer and younger team members arrived a few minutes late looking disheveled. Cameron said, “Thank you for joining us. Did you have a rough night last night?” Sarah blushed and nervously took her seat as her colleagues laughed uncomfortably at the boss’s off-color remark.
Tanya, Cameron’s manager, enjoys his quick wit and friendly banter. But if she’s honest, she’ll admit that sometimes he goes too far and his teasing makes some team members uneasy. But Tanya hesitates to say anything because Cameron is her star performer when it comes to getting results.
Two weeks after the business development meeting, Tanya learned that Sarah was resigning. Her exit interview revealed that Cameron was the primary reason. Her feedback indicated that others on the team shared her frustrations with what they described as Cameron’s inappropriate comments. That afternoon, Tanya texts Cameron: “We need to talk.”
Why people hesitate
At some point in our careers, we’ve all had one of those difficult conversations that didn’t end well. Your direct report sobbed uncontrollably when you shared negative feedback on her job review. Your manager lashed out at you when you asked for help with a team member who wasn’t pulling his weight.
Those memories loom large. It’s human nature to protect ourselves from situations that may be confrontational. Instead of addressing the issue here and now, we tell ourselves:
It’s not that big a deal. We rationalize that the issue is not that important. It’s not worth arguing about.
The problem will go away. Sometimes it seems like the path of least resistance is waiting out the discomfort. We hope the problem will eventually disappear, or the situation will improve over time. Often avoiding the conflict makes the problem bigger.
The timing isn’t right. The person is in a bad mood, or you’ve got a lot going on that day, so you promise you’ll bring it up the next time it happens. For some, the timing never feels quite right. A VitalSmarts poll conducted by Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Conversations, and Justin Hale, a master trainer at VitalSmarts, shows that 40% of people put off their scary conversation for six months, and another 20% wait a year or more.
The person may dislike us. We worry that sharing negative feedback or telling someone something they don’t want to hear may result in the person disliking us. When it’s a colleague, we fear losing their cooperation and support.
We don’t know how to say what needs to be said. We feel unsure about how to have the conversation and fear that, if we don’t handle things well, the situation may worsen.
Things could get emotional. We’re nervous about how the person may react. Will they become angry, get nasty, withdraw and refuse to talk, or break down in tears? The prospect of dealing with emotions that may spiral out of control makes us uncomfortable.
The risks of avoiding conflict
While avoiding a tough conversation may feel expedient in the short run, unresolved workplace conflict comes at a high price.
Disgruntled employees tend to escalate their issues inside and outside the organization if they don’t feel their concerns are handled effectively. People waste valuable time ruminating and complaining to colleagues about the conflict.
When leaders fail to address the problem, their credibility suffers. Negative emotions like anger, resentment, disrespect, and mistrust fester. Involved team members begin to resent each other and avoid communicating or communicating in a superficial way. Teamwork breaks down, and productivity ultimately suffers.
Like in the case of Sarah and Cameron, good employees leave in search of what they see as a less toxic work environment.
Dealing with challenging conversations is an essential leadership skill. Effective leaders know they can’t shy away from potential conflict. They deal with it head-on and model behaviors that promote trust, collaboration, and inclusion. Most important, they view “difficult conversations” as opportunities to help people—including themselves—improve.
The next time you need to navigate through a challenging conversation, try one of these eight strategies:
- Reframe how you look at the conversation. If you see the talk you need to have as awkward and uncomfortable, that will likely be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, view the conversation as a learning opportunity for you and the employee. Your goal is to share information that will help the individual improve performance.
- Plan, don’t script. Think through your intention in having the conversation and what the ideal outcome would be. Write down some bullet points to jog your memory on the key messages you want to communicate. Your thoughts can slip your mind in the heat of the moment.
Consider the possible responses you may hear and some questions you may want to ask. Don’t try to script the conversation or create a detailed agenda. They will make the conversation feel artificial and one-sided. No matter how well you plan, it’s impossible to know how the conversation will go, so stay flexible.
- Reflect on the role you may be playing. Issues are never exclusively the fault of one person. It’s critical to acknowledge your responsibility for the behavior you want to address. In Cameron’s case, Tanya reinforced his behavior. She laughed at his jokes and gave him great performance reviews. She never mentioned that his style might make some team members uncomfortable.
In the conversation, Tanya needs to acknowledge that she should have spoken with Cameron sooner.
- Talk less, listen more. How you listen will make a huge difference in the quality of information you receive. The better listener you are, the more likely people are to open up and get to the heart of the issue. For many leaders, listening is a challenge. Listening is a passive, compliant act, something other people do.
Leaders like to control the conversation. Many find it painful to fully concentrate on a single task for any length of time. We’re used to getting information in sound bites, but that is not how most people talk. It takes time, effort and patience to sort through the noise in a conversation and get to the real message.
The truth is, we can’t learn if we’re doing all the talking. Listen intently and aim to understand the person you’re talking to. Ask questions as needed and care about their answers.
- Be clear about the impact but don’t assume intent. In Cameron’s case, the impact of his behavior was evident. His relationship with Sarah was so uncomfortable for her that she left the organization—even though she’d been receiving positive feedback on her performance.
Tanya assumed that Cameron was being Cameron and wanted Sarah to feel like “one of the guys.” The conversation with him revealed something else. He thought Sarah had tremendous potential but that she was way too sensitive. Yes, he teased her a lot, but it was out of a well-intentioned desire to toughen her up.
Instead of a lecture on toning down his style, Cameron needed help figuring out an effective way to achieve his objective with Sarah.
Stay curious and consider the other person’s perspectives. Rather than feeling the pressure to be the all-knowing one in solving the problem, have the humility to say, “I don’t know what’s gone wrong here, but let’s see if we can figure it out together.”
- Focus on the forward action. When the topic is changing behavior or improving performance, most managers come to the discussion armed with examples of where the employee went wrong. The problem with this approach is that they are acts that happened in the past. The employee can’t change what happened, and that’s an uncomfortable feeling.
When they fear they may have lost esteem in your eyes, that fear can be so potent that it feels like a threat to one’s survival. Survival mode isn’t a conducive environment for a productive conversation about change.
Be direct about what needs to change. If asked, provide a relevant example to illustrate your point and answer any questions. Don’t let the discussion stay in negative mode by dwelling on or debating the past. Quickly shift the energy of the conversation to what needs to happen going forward and collaborate with the employee about a mutually agreeable course of action.
- Have empathy. Empathy can make the conversation go more smoothly. Even when delivered with an emphasis on learning, receiving information that doesn’t enhance our self-image is painful. Be honest but with kindness, compassion and respect.
- Reflect. After the conversation, take the time to learn from the experience: what went right and what would you do different next time. What needs to happen next? You won’t always get the response you want right away.
Some people take time to process feedback, and others will need further conversation or coaching.
You may never enjoy delivering tough feedback, but the process becomes much easier when you feel confident that you know how to have the conversation. The best way to increase your comfort level is to have more of these conversations and to learn from each one.
The next time you find yourself holding back, consider the price of your silence. When problems go unaddressed or are swept under the rug, everyone suffers, including you.
Kimberly Paterson, Certified Executive Coach and Master Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM (www.cim-co.com). CIM works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property and casualty insurance companies, agencies and brokers. She can be reached at email@example.com.