One of the most popular topics that clients want to tackle is how to navigate difficult conversations in their organization. Whether it’s equipping managers to have more effective performance reviews with their teams, teaching employees how to bravely ask one another for feedback, or helping senior leaders elevate their impact in negotiations, difficult conversations are difficult because they open up Pandora’s box of mental chatter. Will they still like me? Is it OK to say that? What if I get fired? How can I say it in a way that doesn’t upset him? How do other managers learn how to do this? Am I the only one who hates these conversations? Where has all my confidence gone? And so on…
I’d like to ease your stress in how you approach difficult conversations (or any important conversation for that matter). It all boils down to one secret ingredient: TIME.
Difficult conversations only become difficult when time creeps in. Let me repeat – conversations only attract the adjective “difficult” when time has elapsed. For example, if something that a colleague said yesterday bothered you all night, I promise that it’s better to talk with your colleague today rather than wait a week or one month from now or next time he violates your trust or – worse – never. Time calcifies the distance between two people. The longer you wait, the harder it will be. And when you do decide to have the conversation, all sorts of resentment and judgment have made their way into your space, causing extra unease and disharmony.
Teams who truly get this go on to become exceptional teams (or colleagues or cohorts or families or friends). They are the ones who know how use time to their advantage. Say something early and often, before it gets charged. You just magically downgraded a “difficult” conversation to a simple conversation.
Some of my clients argue that they want to be thoughtful and really process what occurred with the colleague before bringing the incident up. While it’s completely fine if you need a minute (or a day), I don’t want you waiting longer than that. Time mutates thoughtfulness into rumination. Any longer than you actually need to process thoughtfully will cause the debris of the conversation to start spinning. The simple misunderstanding becomes a disagreement, the disagreement becomes an issue, and the issue becomes (sometimes unbridgeable) distance.
Time is toxic when it comes to difficult conversations, feedback conversations, or alignment conversations. I don’t mean to oversimplify your angst, but I promise that the sooner you tap your authentic bravery and claim the opportunity to hash it out, the better you are equipped to handle any conversation that comes your way. And that, my friends, is an incredible tool in your leadership belt.
A cornerstone of true connection is the ability to have difficult conversations.Anonymous
From Theory to Action
What conversations have you been postponing or avoiding? How is your team health right now? Your relationship health? Your friendship health? While it would be nice to magically equip everyone else in knowing what’s going in your head, that’s not the road of leadership. Buckle up and do an honest inventory of which relationships at home or work need a recalibration. Rate the current authenticity and trust on a scale of 1-5. Anything less than a 4 will not do for you. You deserve better and so it’s time to create better.
Here are some easy steps to help you on your journey:
- Pick the one or two relationships you plan on re-calibrating through conversation.
- Formally invite re-calibration (ie. Hey, I’m concerned about something that happened last week and I really want to clear it up with you. Can we talk?).
- Set a time and date to speak – the sooner, the better (obviously).
- Name the beast using time as the segue (ie. I realize a week has gone by and I don’t want any more time to pass before you and I figure out what happened in that meeting.)
- Express objectively (what actually happened, not your version of the story).
- Express subjectively (how did what actually happened make you feel or what impact did it have on you).
- Open up to dialogue (ask a great question, offer a recommendation, sit in silence while the person has a moment to respond).
This stuff isn’t easy, but it is quite simple (as all good truth is). I hope you continue to stand in your leadership integrity moment by moment and day by day. Don’t allow time to get in the way of your most powerful and present life. Let me know how it goes! (And if your company or team is really struggling with difficult conversations, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can get you some more formal training and support.)