Prospering from Difficult Conversations

No one enjoys difficult conversations. But skilled communicators and Authentic Leaders have them anyway. They know that avoiding difficult conversations helps no one.  They know that avoidance makes whatever situation is driving the need for the conversation worse. 

Having difficult conversations is an important skill to develop.  Especially if you want to have healthy relationships with others. Here are some ideas for making difficult conversations a little less difficult. 

  • Choose the right time and place. It’s important to choose a time and place where both you and the other person feel comfortable and safe to have a conversation. Make sure it’s a private space where you won’t be interrupted. But…if you’re in a position of authority the space should be neutral. Just because your office might be comfortable for you it may be anything but for the other person. That desk you sit behind is often an impenetrable wall between you and the person you’re trying to have the conversation with. If the space isn’t safe and comfortable for both parties involved in the conversation then it’s not a safe and comfortable space at all. 
  • Be clear about the issue. Before you start the conversation, take some time to think about what you want to say. Be crystal clear about the issue at hand. Try to focus on the behavior or action that’s causing the problem. Avoid making personal attacks. Be specific. Don’t use “waffle words.” Don’t use a bigger word than you need to make your point. Your goal in the conversation is not to show off your extensive vocabulary, it’s to communicate clearly. 
  • Listen actively. When you’re having a difficult conversation, it’s important to listen actively to the other person’s perspective. Try to understand where they’re coming from and show empathy for their feelings. If your reply to anything the other person says begins with, “yes but,” then it’s likely you’re not fully listening. It’s likely you were preparing your pithy response instead. Check yourself here; effective listening is every bit as important as anything you may say. 
  • Stay calm and respectful. It’s natural to feel emotional during a difficult conversation, but it’s important to stay calm and respectful. Avoid attacking the other person or becoming defensive. Never allow your passion to become an excuse for losing control of your emotions. 
  • Offer solutions. Instead of just pointing out the problem, offer solutions or suggestions for how to move forward. This can help to create a sense of collaboration and can lead to a more positive outcome. The great Dale Carnegie says to “make the fault seem easy to correct.” Never never never make a mountain out of a molehill. 
  • Follow up. After the conversation, it’s important to follow up and check in with the other person to make sure they’re okay and to see if any further action is needed. Very few difficult conversations are a “one and done” type of communication. Stay connected and make sure that all agreements made, no matter who made them, are being followed through on. 

Having difficult conversations takes practice, but it’s a valuable skill to have. With time and experience, you can become more confident in your ability to communicate effectively. You’ll navigate challenging conversations with much less stress.

Authentic Leaders don’t dodge difficult conversations. They use them to help their people and their organizations grow and prosper. Once you can do that there isn’t much that can get in the way your success.

Want more of LeadToday? I’ve changed things up on my Twitter feed for subscribers. I recently began publishing two or three videos each week focusing on an element of Authentic Leadership. I’ll post these videos each Tuesday and Thursday morning. Sometimes a bonus video pops up at other times during the week. They will be about 10 minutes long so we can get into the topic in a more meaningful way. The investment for subscribers in still only $4.99 a month. That’s for at least 80 MINUTES of quality video content on leadership a month.

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Failing to Lead

Leadership is not for the faint of heart. If I were hiring for a leadership position one of the most important questions I could ask would be this: “Can you give me a recent example where the action you took required real courage?”

There are lots of characteristics required for Authentic Servant Leadership. One of the most important is courage.

The courage to make the tough choices, the courage to say no when no needs to be said. The courage to take a calculated risk and the courage to stand alone, with only the support of your principles.

But there’s another area of leadership that requires true courage that is often overlooked. It’s the courage to say something when something needs to be said. It’s the courage to have uncomfortable conversations with those you lead. It’s the courage to tell the truth when the truth is highly inconvenient.

I’ve been fortunate to be led by leaders who had the courage to tell me the truth about my performance. I’ve also been led by leaders who didn’t. Guess which ones had the most positive impact on my career. There was stuff I certainly didn’t want to hear but hearing it helped me grow. I’d bet the guys leading me would have preferred not to have the conversation either but they stepped up and led.

Conversations require two-way communication, often up close and personal. That’s just too scary for a weak leader or a leader by title only. Even otherwise strong leaders can be challenged with difficult conversations.

It is important for a leader to initiate difficult conversations but it is absolutely vital that a leader engage in difficult conversations when they are initiated by one of their followers. Leaders who think they can solve a problem by avoiding it or who believe their followers will just forget about it are dead wrong.

I know it’s not easy, I don’t like difficult conversations anymore than anyone else. I’ve also attempted to avoid my share of tough talks. But I’ve learned that solves nothing and it’s not an effective way to lead. Failing to face up to these difficult conversations is failing to lead.

Here are a couple of thoughts that may make your next difficult conversation just a little easier.

Write out what you want to say. Sometimes it’s just easier to write it out, take your time with it, put it away for a day and see if it’s still what you want to say after some time has passed. Write it just the way you would say it. I wouldn’t recommend that you read it to the person you want to converse with but the preparation involved in writing it out is likely to make the actual conversation much easier.

Practice it, and not just in your head. Say it out loud, it will sound different. You need to check your tone of voice, you need to take out the little “I know it all” and “you don’t know nothing” peaks and valleys in your voice. Almost everything we say is clearer the second time we say it so find a quiet place and have the first conversation with yourself.

Remember, if you’re doing all the talking it’s a speech not a conversation. Let the other person talk, in fact, take the pressure off yourself. Let the other person do a great deal of talking while you demonstrate that other important characteristic of a good leader, listening skills.