We’ve all been there. Leaders face “difficult conversations” all the time. Do any of these sound familiar?
- You have to deliver a performance evaluation to someone who’s been under-performing for years, but the previous manager never confronted the situation
- You’ve just been promoted to lead a group of former peers and one of them wants assurances that nothing will really change between the two of you
- You’re getting tired of your boss interrupting you in meetings
- You need to tell a peer that you feel you’re not being consulted or considered in cross-functional team decisions
- You have substantial questions about a subordinate’s judgment in terms of how they handled a recent situation
- You want to make an appeal for more resources (financial, human, technological, etc.) and the climate is all about trimming the budget
- Someone wants to “triangulate” with you – they want to complain, gossip, vent or whine about someone else who isn’t part of the conversation
- You have to tell a subordinate why you won’t be supporting their candidacy for promotion
- You have privileged information and a subordinate is asking for advice which you really can’t deliver without revealing the confidential information
Difficult conversations have at least three things in common:
- High stakes
- Strong emotions
- Unsure outcomes
And all too often, they come as a surprise and pop-up unexpectedly (had any unexpected phone calls from an irate customer or client lately?)
What do many people do when faced with a difficult conversation?
- They procrastinate hoping the situation will resolve itself
- They try to be subtle and in-direct to avoid hurt feelings
- They jump to sarcasm
- They suffer in silence
- They stumble through the conversation convinced they will screw it up
- They blame the other person for the issue and feel righteous indignation
The problem with these strategies is not that they don’t work, but rather that sometimes, they DO work.
That becomes what the psychologists call an intermittent positive reinforcement, which is powerful. It’s what drives people to play the slot machines even in the face of overwhelming evidence they are likely to lose because, every once in a while, they win.
There is a better way. You’ll need three things to navigate these white waters successfully.
- Capability – good communication skills, both in terms of framing your message, and hearing theirs
- Commitment – a genuine desire to create a positive outcome
- Courage – a willingness to acknowledge your fear, lean into your discomfort, and go forward anyway
Let’s have a conversation about what works – and what doesn’t – when you’re having a difficult conversation.