Success in Difficult Conversations

In our work lives as in our personal lives we encounter situations that demand initiating a difficult conversation. These conversations are not easy, but shouldn’t be avoided because that can often make things worse.

As much as the conflict avoider in us may want to run in the other direction, those who are able to courageously confront the situation are likely to push through the discomfort and grow from it. In addition, the relationship that is demanding the difficult conversation will most likely move forward.

A difficult conversation results when two or more people have: 1) a difference of opinion, perspective, needs or wants; 2) feelings or emotions are strong; 3) consequences or the stakes are high for at least one person. When you’re in a difficult conversation, you may find:

  • There is little safety between participants
  • Emotions are defining the conversation
  • Very little listening is taking place
  • Participants are aiming for a win/lose scenario
  • Participants may be playing a role: victim, aggressor, martyr, etc.

Obviously, this can result in a highly stressful environment. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Use the following steps to be at your best when initiating a difficult conversation:

Stay Calm
Breathe. Try to be present of what you are feeling and what it is you want. If possible, try to determine what the other person may be feeling and wanting. And when you begin the conversation, be certain to communicate your intent up front in order to provide safety for the other person.

Shift Your Perspective
Rather than focus on how difficult the conversation is going to be, try to think of it as a constructive conversation. By initiating this constructive conversation, you are demonstrating the value the relationship has for you. Keep in mind that this is an investment of your time and emotional energy that will benefit you as well as the relationship.

Make a Plan
Have a clear idea of the points you want to make, but don’t write out a script. You should be able to summarize both your perspective as well as the other’s. If you are uncertain of the former, you need to figure it out before initiating the conversation. If you are uncertain of the latter, you should provide ample opportunity at the beginning of the conversation to better understand this. Be careful of assumptions you are making as these can so often derail any conversation, and are especially dangerous when emotions are high.

Prepare to Actively Listen
This means listening to the other person in a way that ensures he or she feels heard. Being an active listener means you make a conscious effort to truly hear what the other person is saying—in their words as well as their body language. Practice holding off thinking about how to respond or interrupting until you have thoroughly heard what they are saying.

Be Compassionate and Demonstrate Empathy
Consider how it may feel to be on the other end of this conversation. Be respectful while they take in what may be very difficult for them to hear. Convey in your words, tone and body language that you truly care for how the other person feels about what it is you are saying. Try to get comfortable with the awkward silence that may result.

Seek a Win-Win Conclusion When Possible
In most cases a successful difficult conversation doesn’t result in a winner and a loser. Therefore, seek out an amicable resolution to the conflict in a way that is satisfying to both parties. This is not always possible, of course, but even when you have to convey bad news such as a job dismissal, see if there is a way to soften the news. Perhaps it is simply providing information about out-placement services, severance package, a solid reference, etc.

Reflect & Learn
When the conversation is over, take a moment to reflect on what went well and what not so well. What could you have said better or differently? There are certainly things outside of your control in a heated conversation and you will need to maintain your boundaries. Don’t take on guilt for the other person’s negative reaction to your news. This requires courage and you will likely be fortified the next time you need to have a difficult conversation.

In order to have a constructive difficult conversation, the steps above should help you navigate them more successfully. In most cases, your efforts are likely to improve the relationship and build your skill at navigating future difficult conversations.

“Twenty years of research involving more than 100,000 people reveals that the key skill of effective leaders, teammates, parents and loved ones is the capacity to skillfully address emotionally and politically risky issues,” according to the authors of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High.

Start by rethinking your difficult conversation as more of a constructive conversation. Remember that whether it is with your family members, friends or co-workers you are directly confronting an issue that has stifled the relationship. Though it is not easy to do, the result of your efforts—in most cases—will move the relationship forward and build-up a powerful skill in you as a leader.

Medium Makes the Message Meaningful

The popularity of texting and social media has enabled quicker and wider distribution of our thoughts and ideas, but at what cost? When these methods become the default medium for how we interact with others, receivers may make false assumptions, misunderstand our intent and become less rather than more clear on the message.

This is because so much is lost when we remove the opportunity for the receiver to look into the eyes of the sender, hear the tone of their voice, and feel a physical presence that is either congruent or incongruent with what is being stated. All of these elements are vital to clear communication, yet missing when reduced to text and emoticons.

When we email, text, tweet or post we are choosing asynchronous communication. This electronically mediated form of communication occurs when participants are not necessarily interacting concurrently. One person can send a message and receivers can reply when they choose. This can be especially valuable in some situations and extremely problematic in others.

The trouble is these asynchronous communication vehicles have become the default way for far too many of us to interact with others. And this is creating a crisis in our communication.

One of the reasons for this is that we all instinctively need warmth to convey difficult truths, and this warmth won’t happen if you can’t see the other person’s face or hear the inflection in that person’s voice.

Communicating face-to-face or even via video (Skype, Slack, FaceTime, etc.) is much better suited in most cases. This synchronous communication is how we first learned to interact with other humans and became vital to our survival. In synchronous communication, you say something to another person and you receive immediate feedback both from what he or she says and from the extremely valuable non-verbal messages conveyed.

When conveying any message, it is important to choose the appropriate medium rather than simply default to one alone. With that I offer the following suggestions.

Email. Using email is a great way to convey information to others, but it’s not great in every case. Here are some suggestions regarding email guidelines:

  • Include a clear and direct Subject line.
  • Think twice before hitting “Reply All.”
  • Be cautious regarding humor.
  • Reply to your emails—even those sent to you by mistake.
  • Proofread your message before hitting Send.
  • Keep tabs on your tone to ensure the message won’t be misinterpreted.
  • If message may require back and forth discussion, choose face-to-face or phone call instead.

Text. Here’s a subset from a list from the Emily Post Institute regarding texting guidelines that I think are appropriate:

  • Don’t text to inform someone of sad news or to end a relationship.
  • Keep your message brief. If it runs on and on, make a phone call instead.
  • Don’t text anything confidential, private or potentially embarrassing.
  • Don’t be upset if your text doesn’t get an immediate response—you can’t know for sure when the recipient will read the message.
  • Just as you shouldn’t answer your phone during a conversation, you shouldn’t text when you’re engaged with someone else. If you are with someone who won’t stop texting during your conversation, feel free to excuse yourself until they have concluded their messaging.
  • Don’t text and drive.

In an article in Psychology Today, Douglas Van Praet recommends the following to improve all text-based communication:

  1. Play it straight. Strive for being clear over being clever. Less will be lost in the translation between what is written and what is read.
  2. Close the loop. Acknowledging a message is as simple as nodding your head or saying “uh-huh” when you are face-to-face. With text-based communications, you can be courteous with a quick return message to acknowledge receipt.
  3. Respond quickly. It is much more difficult to build and maintain trust without face-to-face interactions. Based on research, a general rule of thumb indicates that a quick response will lead to greater respect, even when the answer may not be what they want.
  4. Move the conversation offline. Bottom line: If the conversation is important, do it in person or at least via video where you can see each other.

Tweet. Twitter’s Terms of Service make it extremely clear and simple regarding proper etiquette: Be genuine and non-deceptive and provide value. Other things to keep in mind:

  • Like all social media, remember it is a public forum.
  • It is meant for engagement, so prepare to genuinely engage with your followers.
  • Be polite.
  • For every promotional link regarding you or your business, send out at least five tweets that inform, engage and converse.

Face-to-face is usually the most effective way to convey information to another person, especially with a sensitive or difficult message and where there is a need for back and forth questions and answers.

It seems that building and maintaining trust, perhaps more than anything else, is when it is most important to communicate face-to-face. Therefore, if you have any concern regarding trust with whomever you are trying to communicate, engage directly rather than digitally.

More (Positive) Feedback Please

Feedback. We all want it and perhaps those in the Millennial generation crave it more than most. But is anything less than positive feedback really appreciated and effective at bringing out our best performance?

Years ago I wrote a blog post titled Six Tips to Successfully Deliver Employee Feedback where I suggested “. . . if we are doing something not so well, we want to know what this is and especially how to correct it. Don’t underestimate a person’s level of resilience because such feedback loops are vital to their continued growth.”

But in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review, an article titled Negative Feedback Rarely Leads to Improvement by Paul Green, a doctoral candidate at Harvard Business School, found that critical feedback from coworkers drove employees to adjust their roles to be around people who would provide more positive reviews. That is, when feedback was what they term “disconfirming,” the test subjects would seek others to provide “confirming feedback.”

Further, he found that when the relationship was discretionary—people didn’t have to work together—the person getting the negative feedback would just move away from that person or group. When the employees had to work together, however, the recipient of the negative feedback would look to connect with other people in the company in what they termed “shopping for confirmation.”

Negative feedback doesn’t provide the sustenance we need to enable us to maintain a positive view of ourselves, according to Green.

“The idea behind performance appraisals, and feedback in general, is that to grow and improve, we must have a light shined on the things we can’t see about ourselves,” says Green. “There’s an assumption that what motivates people to improve is the realization that they’re not as good as they think they are. But in fact, it just makes them go find people who will not shine that light on them. It may not be having the intended effect at all.”

What it comes down to is whether when receiving this critical feedback, the employee feels valued or not. Delivering the feedback sandwich of “here’s what you do well, here’s what you do not so well and keep up the good work” isn’t necessarily helpful. Instead, it should be about ensuring that employees first and foremost feel secure knowing that they provide value and their contributions are generally positive. Then the employee is able to hear and respond appropriately to the critical information.

In my work as a consultant and leadership coach, I find so often it is not the salary, job title, or other external expressions of worth, but whether or not the person feels they are valued by their manager, by their peers and by the company as a whole. And, ironically, conveying this appreciation of value to an employee costs the company nothing.

In some ways, this seems to further the argument that we should focus on maximizing strengths rather than minimizing weaknesses. But I think that would be short-sighted and reduce our ability to continue to grow and learn as we advance in our careers.

Regularly acknowledging and emphasizing the value employees provide means they may be much more open to hearing critical feedback. They may then be able to separate their job performance from who they are as individuals. Then they will be able to act on the feedback with a foundation of security that enables the courage to make necessary changes.

A Return to Civility

So much of what is currently wrong in the workplace, government and our society can be linked to people simply not acting civil towards each other. Perhaps if we were a bit more courteous and polite it would lead to greater productivity, health and happiness.

In the workplace, this lack of civility shows up when we compete with coworkers rather than collaborate; it is seen when we act in a passive-aggressive manner to feign support for others and their ideas when, in fact, we have no intention of following up; or in stonewalling when others request something that is clearly important to them yet not to us.

As an organization development consultant and leadership coach, I find one of the most common forms of dysfunction is the inability of people to work together in a civil manner. Behaviors that diminish civility include both those that are intentional such as those mentioned above as well as unintentional. Such unintentional behaviors can include the failure to actively listen, an inability to believe that what others are doing is the best they can, and a lack of accountability that is endemic throughout many organizations.

“In America, we’ve got to learn how to disagree without demonizing each other,” says Pastor Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life. Though he may have been speaking metaphorically, the fundamental principle is the idea that people can still work together even if they do not always agree with each other’s point of view.

Look no further than the dysfunction in our federal government with Congress unable to even have a constructive conversation with members on the other side of the aisle in order to produce bipartisan legislation that is in the interests of the nation as a whole.

This lack of civility currently shows up in so many ways both within the workplace and elsewhere in our lives.

  • Meetings that have no clear agenda, feel like a waste of time, or have no clear action plan afterwards. Could we instead enable attendees to be interested and engaged by encouraging their passion as well as respectful conflict?
  • Talking over another instead of really listening to what the other has to say. What if we allowed the space for true give and take dialogue where people actually felt heard that could then give way to greater understanding?
  • Email messages that clutter our inboxes because they are rambling, incoherent or too long to be read quickly. What if we consistently specified our intention in the Subject line of our message and followed with a straight-forward request or statement that could be quickly read, acted upon or discarded?
  • Text messaging that attempts to communicate, but often leads to misunderstanding or confusion regardless of the number of emojis being used. Instead, what if text messages were used to for simple requests and comments rather than a replacement for conversation with real emotions?
  • Tweets that attempt to communicate something simple to many people, yet often lead to sensationalism and/or obfuscation. What if we used these 128 characters only to direct attention to something meaningful where it can further illuminate or clarify?
  • Social media that in so many ways leads to anti-social behavior. Recent research suggests that social media often leads people to becoming more isolated. Rather than accumulating “likes” in the virtual world, what if we connected in the real-time, physical world with those we consider friends?
  • Turn signals are still the law of the land and yet motorists rarely use them anymore as if it is no longer important to indicate our intention to those who share the road. What if we again used this simple mechanism to specify our intention in order to reduce accidents as well as frustration on the road?
  • Eye contact with others tends to make many of us nervous, yet not making such contact only further separates and divide us. What if instead of making assumptions regarding other people, we were able to connect with them by simply smiling, making eye contact and saying hello?

None of these items acted upon individually will make our world more civil, yet if each of us chose to practice a little bit of kindness and compassion towards one another both in and out of the workplace, I suspect it would catch on and begin to make a difference.

Call me Pollyannaish, but I truly believe that the only way to combat the destructive forces that are preventing us from getting along are to choose to be more civil with each other. Let the spirit of this holiday season continue into the new year by making one of your resolutions to be more civil with other people.

Breaking the Silence on Complicity

On the one hand we’ve seen the recent rise in naming complicit behavior, and on the other hand the rising response that this behavior will no longer be tolerated. Yet many of our leaders remain sitting on the sidelines. Why?

The word “complicit” was recently chosen as the word of the year by Dictionary.com citing the term’s renewed relevance in U.S. culture and politics. They also noted that a refusal to be complicit has also been “a grounding force of 2017.”

Their website defines complicit as “choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, especially with others; having complicity.” According to Thesaurus.com, the opposite of complicit is clear, forthright and honest.

Two recent examples include an SNL skit involving Ivanka Trump, and outgoing Arizona Senator Jeff Flake’s speech on the Senate floor where he told fellow Republicans regarding the President, “It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end.”

Complicity was found not only in the political realm, but also in society’s role for contributing to climate change, normalizing of hate speech and supremacist groups, and the tacit enabling of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Time magazine’s person of the year in 2017 is “The Silence Breakers,” referring to those women who have courageously spoken out against perpetrators of sexual harassment in the workplace, and the global conversation they have started. Edward Felsenthal, Time’s editor in chief, said in an interview on the “Today” show recently that the #MeToo movement represented the “fastest-moving social change we’ve seen in decades, and it began with individual acts of courage by women and some men too.”

Tarana Burke created the “Me Too” movement many years ago, but it didn’t go viral until actress Alyssa Milano urged those following her on Twitter to use the hashtag #MeToo if they had experiences of sexual harassment.

“I’ve been saying from the beginning that it’s not just a moment, it’s a movement,” Burke said in the same Today episode. “I think now the work really begins. The hashtag is a declaration. But now we’re poised to really stand up and do the work.”

The rise in the usage of the word “complicit” and American women’s courageous response in speaking out after acts of sexual harassment can serve as a catalyst towards positive change. We may one day look back at this time as a pivotal moment when leaders’ abhorrent behavior was no longer tolerated, and when powerful men across entertainment, media, politics and business were finally being held accountable.

So what are our leaders doing? Are they sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what the voters or customers decide? Are they following the advice of their crisis management consultants who tell them to hold off to see if this blows over before “getting ahead of the story.” Are they putting more pressure on their lawyers to ensure that their financial settlements hold up against future accusations?

Great leaders have integrity. They do not commit nor do they tacitly condone illegal acts and inappropriate behavior. And they speak out when they see wrong doing and stand up to their colleagues, coworkers, partners, friends and others to prevent such acts.

When others lie, deceive, cheat, mistreat women, or disparage innocent people, we must hold them accountable. This includes our bosses, colleagues, coworkers, friends and our elected officials not only for the acts themselves, but also for their complicity. And we must hold ourselves accountable as well.

Because that’s what leaders do. And whether we ourselves are leaders, want to become leaders, or just choose to follow other leaders, we must not be complicit in bad behavior.