Part One – The What and the Why of It
Research shows there is one particular method of handling difficult conversations that managers throughout the business world have employed more than any other: Avoidance.
People avoid difficult conversations, because most of us, from an early age, have experienced any kind of confrontation as unpleasant. They have typically involved angry emotions, hurt feelings, defensiveness or tenseness, and often resulted in a worse state of affairs than before the conversation started. On the other hand, in order to get past the resistance some of us have to these conversations, when we do have them, we often times do so with excessive forcefulness. Then the confrontation comes across as an attack – a conflict, which is the very fear that got us in this place to start with. When that happens the receiver gets defensive.
When I get defensive, I stop listening. Then what is the point of having a difficult conversation with me in the first place?
Defensive people are not listening. Or if they are listening, they are not hearing (important distinction). Or if they are hearing they are only hearing certain bits and filtering out other bits through their defensiveness. Emotions are overruling their ability to take in and process the information in a useful way – and certainly short-circuiting any willingness to act on the information.
So how can we have a difficult conversation that will be constructive rather than conflictual? There is a difference between confrontation and conflict. Although many of us, from our personal experiences, think of those as synonyms.
This is not rocket science, but it’s also not something most people think about when they do this (if they do). The typical thought process goes something like this:
“I am going to have this conversation, and I am going to say what I have to say as clearly as I can (or in whatever way has become my natural default in these situations). There; I’m done.”
- But did the message get across?
- What difference did it make?
- Are things going to be any different now because of the conversation – except, of course, for the newly disturbed relationships and often additional costly consequences when misunderstanding leads to misbehavior?
I want to offer an approach that will allow these conversations to happen collaboratively. Of course sometimes things will go astray regardless, because I can’t predict how someone will respond. Nonetheless, if you approach the communication in the way that I am going to outline in Part Two, the chances are good that the conversation will go as well as possible – often times, surprisingly well, from my experience and that of many of my coaching clients over the years.
I end up using this approach with my coaching clients across the board. Almost always, at some point in their coaching program, one of my clients, runs up against a situation where there is something they really don’t want to say, but really need to say. Then we pull this process out of my toolkit to prepare them to have that conversation in a good way.
As a side note, even for those of us who are fairly good at doing this, there are certain people in our lives that shut us down and with whom it’s difficult to have a challenging conversation. Sometimes it’s a customer or a boss and other times, people at home – especially when those people have a big practical or emotional impact on us and our lives in one way or another. At these times, it is advisable to bring in a third party to facilitate the process.
There is a powerful saying from Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) that is key to what we are up to here: “The meaning of a communication is its meaning to the receiver.” Stop a moment, reread this proposition and consider it. It’s a critical nuance that often get missed – or ignored.
In fact, it doesn’t matter what it is I intend to say, because I am not communicating to myself; it’s a two-way street.
Communication is about information passing correctly from one person to another person; so whatever I may want to think, the understanding that person walks away with is what that communication has been. And what’s more, whose responsibility is it to make sure that occurs correctly?
Yes, mine! The burden is wholly upon the initiator of the communication to see to it that the person with whom they have an objective for speaking gets the full and accurate content of their intended message.
I refer to this method I have developed as a form of “Leadership Communication”. When I talk about leadership, I mean a way of interacting with people that attracts them to follow my lead. It’s not about making people do anything, it’s about behaving in a way that people want to emulate or join me. In this communication tool, each step is about handling the next piece of the conversation so that it is likely to encourage you to respond in a positive way – in the same spirit as the way I just communicated to you.
You will see more clearly how this plays out in Part Two of this blog article, when I post it next month. We are going to learn to employ a step by step process. I call it a “Clearing”.
- Stay tuned for Part Two: Speaking the Unspeakable :: Having Difficult Conversations Successfully :: The How of It
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