Difficult Conversations Could Be Holding You Back


By Jim Struck

How many of you hate conflict?  How many of you avoid it whenever you can, if not all the time?  How many of you find it affecting how well you lead others?

According to the science around the DISC profile I work with, about 86% of the population dislikes conflict to one degree or another.  It stands to reason that most people struggle to have difficult conversations.  The material affect of this is that people and organizations are far less productive, because many of those difficult conversations relate to how staff does their job.

John likes Linda, but Linda is only doing a portion of the job she needs to be doing.  John knows he needs to have this conversation, but he avoids it.  He avoids it long enough that John’s boss is asking him why he isn’t having the conversation with Linda?  This “dance” is not unusual.  Few do it well.  Fewer still do it at all.  Unfortunately, the lack of courage has a material affect on how clients and the organization are served.  We are costing our companies thousands, if not millions, of dollars.  We are also damaging our reputation and impacting our teams by not addressing the poor performers.

My history of conflict avoidance looks a lot like what I’ve described.  The conversations I had in my head looked like this.  “I need to talk to Gerry about her performance, but …maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day, or the next week, or the next month, or better yet, maybe Gerry will figure it out on her own.  That would be sweet.”  It was about my convenience.  It was not about what Gerry or the organization needed.

For this to change I needed to “interrogate reality” (Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations). I needed to really see me in the middle of my reality, what I was REALLY doing.  It was not pretty, but it motivated me to do begin to act differently.

The first step was thinking differently.  This was not about me, my feelings, my desire to be loved and like.  It was about caring enough about someone else and their success that I was willing to provide them the information to help them be more successful.  That is when I adopted the “it’s just information” mindset.  I realized that I had been making value judgments about how my information would be perceived.  Those judgments were getting in the way of me having the conversations I needed to.

Armed with that realization I was able to hone in on the critical message.  What were the one or two critical pieces of information this individual most needed to hear?  It didn’t matter what they were (behavior, performance, process, quality, hygiene, etc.).  I was singularly focused on what I needed to tell them in order to help them be more successful.  What they did with the information was their business.

What I found, with practice, was I got really good at relaying difficult information.  What else I learned was it was not just about the person I was telling, but I was also doing it for their team.  Teams need fully functional people.  The difficult conversations had an impact far greater than I appreciated.  That was also true when I wasn’t haven’t those conversations.

Follow-up.  How are they doing?  Feedback at this point is critical.  Are they making improvement?  Cool, let’s celebrate?  They’re not improving.  What don’t they get?  Where are they unclear?  What else can I say that will help illuminate their understanding between their current behavior and the desired state?

Here’s my summary:

  • Interrogate your reality around conflict.  Are you running from it?  Are there conversations you’re not having as a result (business or personal)?  Is that okay?  Do you want something better?  Is what you’re doing now going to get you there?
  • How can you think differently about conflict/difficult conversations?  Can I come to think of it/them as just information? Is there another way to think about it that will allow me to face the conversations in a better, more productive way?
  • Focus on the core improvement information needed.  It’s “just information” conversation is compassionate, direct, clear, and full of, “I support you and want you to be successful and that is why I’m sharing this information with you.”
  • Follow-up.  Provide feedback as to how they are doing with what you talked about.  The follow-up is just as important as the initial conversation.

Would having more timely feedback conversations with people increase the trust people have for me?  How is that different from today?  What would it change if I got a reputation for investing in my people by being fair, direct, clear, and compassionate?  How is that different from today?  Is that something I want?

To your courage and your success!


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