Posted by & filed under Leadership.

May 15, 2019

By: Erin Bair, Director, Training & Organization Development, Cascade Employers Association

Perhaps your direct report’s performance has not been meeting your expectations or is engaging in behavior that you find troubling. Maybe that’s the case, but it’s not your direct report. It’s your peer or your boss. Difficult conversations (a.k.a. conflict) is often the most disliked part of management – whether we’re managing up, down, or sideways.

The good news is that with tools and practice difficult conversations get easier over time. We might never look forward to them, but we will see how valuable they are to building lasting, meaningful relationships at work. We’ll be taking a look at three areas: timing a difficult conversation, prepping for a difficult conversation, and the essential elements of the conversation itself.

Timing a Difficult Conversation

The vast majority of people I work with are conflict avoidant – they want to avoid conflict at all costs, especially at work. Some of them are comfortable engaging in conflict in their personal lives, but when it comes to work, for many, the risks appear to outweigh the benefits. ‘What if I make it worse?’ ‘What if I ruin the relationship and they hate me?’ ‘What if they shut down or disengage?’ These are the people at risk of postponing the conversation… potentially forever.

For these individuals (and I’m one of them) it’s helpful to remember what negative consequences will likely follow if we don’t have the conversation. The most obvious consequence is that there will be no change. Things rarely (read: never) spontaneously improve on their own without some type of intervention. Next, if you ever do have the conversation with the person there is a high risk that you’ll have delayed so long there will be severe damage to that person’s trust in you. They’ll wonder, ‘why didn’t they tell me sooner?’ In addition, it is highly likely that the issue is affecting others, like the people on your team. When we avoid, we risk losing credibility with our team, with the person in question, and with the organization itself.

On the other end of the spectrum are individuals who rush into a difficult conversation too easily. Here the risk is that we will lack tact, we step on toes, and potentially do more harm than good. Even people who are conflict avoidant can look like these individuals when they finally gear up to address the conflict. When this happens it looks more like a confrontation than a conversation.

The solution: have the conversation as soon as possible, after you’ve done some planning, and only when you are in an open-minded space to hear out the other person.

Planning a Difficult Conversation

Many of us want to leap immediately to what we want to say. We want to get in, articulate the problem, tell the other person to improve, and retreat as quickly as possible. The truth is, we can only plan so much for a difficult conversation because we have no idea what the other person is going to say. However, it is helpful to write down your answers to the following questions:

What is my expectation and what is the gap? How is that expectation not being met? This isn’t just for direct reports. We have expectations for everyone, bosses included. Can we clearly articulate what the issue is? It’s important to drill down on specifics rather than rely on blanket statements, like someone’s “attitude.”

What do I want from the conversation? What don’t I want from the conversation? List as many of these as possible. It will help ground you in what’s important when the time comes for the conversation, so you don’t go down rabbit holes. It’s also highly likely that you’ll say these things during the conversation, especially if the other person becomes defensive.

What’s my part? This one isn’t fun, but it is essential to think about – and admit – during the conversation. I’ve rarely seen a difficult conversation where both parties didn’t share responsibility. Did you wait too long to have the conversation? Did you ever clearly communicate the expectation in the first place? Did you make up a narrative in your head about the other person that has no factual support? Does the person have the training and resources necessary to be successful? When you have the conversation it’s highly likely you should own up to your part. It will help demonstrate to the other person that you seek to find a solution rather than blame.

Steps in the Conversation

I never advise people to script their conversations. It will end up sounding disingenuous. However, planning is essential to really be prepared for the conversation. (Feel free to take your notes in with you!) In addition, these conversations should usually take place away from others at a mutually convenient time. While not a script, here are some steps to include:

  • Make it safe: Convey that you mean well to start. You could ask them if they’re open to some feedback, which will help prepare them for the conversation ahead. You could start with their importance to the team or your desire to help them continue to succeed.
  • State your expectation and the gap: Try to frame this from your perspective, rather than labeling the other person’s behavior, e.g., “When you did x, it made me feel y.”
  • Ask for their side. This is the step most often skipped or skimped on. They likely have their own thoughts on the situation and a completely different perspective – perhaps one you didn’t anticipate. Listen carefully and ask questions until you fully understand where they’re coming from.
  • Validate where they are right. Most of us want to skip ahead to where the other person is wrong. However, their perspective and their feelings are valid.
  • Segue with “and” not “but.” Chances are when we try to validate another person’s perspective we pivot back with the word “but.” “I can understand why you were frustrated, but I expect you to not raise your voice at me when we disagree about something.” That little word – “but” – negates every word and sentiment that comes before it and primes the other person to become defensive.
  • Work until you both agree on the issue. There might be several. You may own a piece of it. Until you both can agree where the issue is, resolution is unlikely.
  • Ask for a solution. If they are stuck, feel free to provide a suggestion.
  • Set up a time to follow up. Difficult conversations almost always need a follow-up conversation to check in and see how things are going. Both parties might have had additional thoughts since the original conversation or need time to process and reflect further. Spare yourself the anxiety of putting off another difficult conversation.

Difficult conversations are called difficult for a reason. That said, they can also provide opportunities to enrich and deepen our professional relationships.

Erin loves helping members create innovative work environments that activate their employees’ intrinsic motivation through training, coaching and team building. She also excels at meeting/retreat facilitation and board development. Prior to joining the Cascade team, she was the VP of Research & Development at Personal Resource Management Associates, Inc., where she specialized in leadership development and management consulting.

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