The Power of Dialogue: Tackling Difficult Conversations with Confidence
I recently came across a case involving an extensive medical practice boasting over 120 employees and a CEO whose actions created discord within the organization. The CEO’s behavior included belittling staff members, leading to several employees, including some of the most experienced, deciding to leave.
Upon investigation, it became evident this had been an ongoing problem for months, if not years. Unfortunately, the issues were allowed to persist without discussion until it reached a point where the situation appeared irreparable due to the extensive damage caused.
Had conversations occurred earlier, the toxicity within the organization might have been prevented from escalating. However, the organization overlooked the problem, losing valuable, seasoned employees and tarnishing the practice’s reputation as a desirable workplace. The failure to address the issue as it arose ultimately led to this unfortunate outcome.
Clearly, the time to have these conversations is before they become a drain on your organization. The conversational, engaged approach needs to happen before it’s too late.
The Value of Seizing Opportunities Early
The book “Crucial Conversations” highlights the significance of effectively navigating high-stakes discussions where emotions are intense and people have differing viewpoints. Engaging in these conversations leads to a culture of intellectual and emotional honesty, leading to significant positive impacts in the workplace.
When there is intellectual and emotional honesty, workplaces become emotionally and physically safer, with greater customer loyalty, enhanced productivity, and improved financial results. It is one of the first steps to nurturing workplace resilience and building a solid team.
These difficult conversations typically revolve around two fundamental competencies:
- Assessing Job Fit and Skill Proficiency – Are people doing the job they need to be doing and have the skills to do it? or
- Addressing Behavioral Issues – Is it a behavior, i.e., something hindering individuals from being as effective as they could be in their roles?
The second discussion tends to be more challenging. Many managers are comfortable discussing competency, but when it comes to addressing behavior, it becomes a more difficult task.
Leaders tend to either shy away from engaging in crucial conversations or employ an authoritarian approach, leading to conversations marked by defensiveness or anger. Ignoring behavioral issues does not make them disappear; they persist unresolved. They tend to fester like a wound not treated effectively. The issues get bigger, and performance suffers – organizationally and individually (because employees need feedback and direction to succeed). This leads to a culture of toxicity and negative relationships that hurt the team and the individual.
For difficult conversations to be effective, there has to be a desire to maintain a positive working relationship. Difficult conversations are most effective when they are part of a culture of psychological safety and honesty. And when engrained in a culture, it’s a win-win-win for the individual, the team, and the organization.
7 Essential Steps to Prepare for Crucial Conversations
The single most important thing leaders can do to make having difficult conversations easier and ensure a more effective outcome is to set clear expectations and cultural guidelines. This minimizes room for excuses like, “I didn’t know, or I didn’t understand.” Ideally, the best time to do this is at the beginning of the relationship.And the expectations and guidelines should be reviewed on an ongoing basis. If expectations have not been clearly set, resetting and ensuring that commitments and expectations are explicitly understood and agreed upon is crucial prior to engaging in a difficult conversation.
When preparing to have difficult conversations, it’s important to have a well-thought-out plan and approach to ensure the conversation leads to positive outcomes.
- Identify the positive purpose – Is it to provide insight into a blind spot? Improve a working relationship? Deal with negative behavior in the organization? Whatever the goal, it should be positive and not used to prove a point.
- Clarify the problem and the impact of the problem – Ascertain how serious the issue is beforehand to establish how the conversation will be handled. For instance, if persistent interruptions hinder healthy discussion and dialogue, this toxic behavior has a direct impact on problem solving and innovation..
- State the desired outcome – In navigating tough conversations, enter them with a clear understanding of why you are engaging in the dialogue and what specific result you aim to achieve. Is there a need for more information from the person? Do they need to apologize?
- Outline the specific facts as objectively as possible. The preparation phase is a foundational step to separate emotion from facts. For example, rather than stating, “Sue is disrespectful,” it would be more accurate to say that when you met with Sue, she did not look up from her work. This approach helps to provide a clearer and more unbiased account of the situation.
- Develop a well-rounded perspective on an issue. Try to approach it from the other person’s point of view. What might an objective observer say about the situation? Challenge assumptions. Being curious about different ways to look at the situation can lead to a more comprehensive understanding of all the factors involved.
- Role-play the discussion with someone you trust. In this scenario, you can take on the role of the person with whom you need to have the conversation while the other person plays you. This approach can provide valuable insights and help you see the situation from a different perspective.
- Examine your mindset. Take a moment to determine whether you are looking at the situation from a pessimistic or optimistic viewpoint. Adopting a positive attitude can foster a more constructive and productive dialogue.
Strategies to Manage Defensiveness
When having difficult conversations, it is not uncommon for people to become emotional, especially if these conversations are not the norm within the culture. It may initially spark defensiveness. However, leaders can play a role in diffusing defensiveness to keep the conversation on track.
One practical approach is prioritizing face-to-face or video conversations, with phone calls as a secondary option. Avoid using text or email for sensitive discussions because they lack real-time interaction, the chance to ask questions for clarity, and a complete understanding of tone and nuance.
The second way to help defer defensiveness is to set the context. Avoid starting the conversation with unrelated small talk, as it can cause a sudden mindset shift when transitioning to critical feedback. It is essential to acknowledge that the other person’s perspective may differ from yours and that you are willing to listen to it upfront.
Lastly, own your piece of it. At the beginning of the conversation, acknowledge that there may have been miscommunication on expectations or differing perspectives. Doing this could reduce emotional intensity and defensiveness, creating a more receptive environment.
When individuals are in a defensive state, they are less likely to approach the conversation with reasonability. Instead, they tend to default to a fight or flight response, which hinders their ability to truly hear and understand what needs to be done or engage in problem-solving.
Here are a few points to keep in mind when dealing with these discussions:
- Tie the discussion and feedback to a goal you know the person has. For instance, if an individual desires advancement t but does not meet performance expectations, you can link their behavior as a potential roadblock to achieving their goal.
- Get their agreement and commitment to make a change and involve them in designing the solution. Instead of telling them what to do, ask what they are willing to do to address the issue.
- After the conversation, catch the person doing the desired behavior or action and acknowledge them for their efforts. Recognition of their positive behavior can help reinforce the desired actions and boost their motivation to continue improving.
Legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson was renowned for his distinctive coaching philosophy, which revolved around the concept of providing five instances of positive praise for every single piece of constructive criticism (a ratio of 5:1). Essentially, the “5x for every 1” principle underscores the importance of balancing criticism with encouragement. By adhering to this approach, coaches can effectively pinpoint areas requiring improvement while fostering a positive and receptive atmosphere for making necessary corrections.
Do you aim to cultivate a culture where leaders embrace difficult conversations as a catalyst for constructive growth and positive organizational change? We’re committed to building thriving, healthy workplaces, prioritizing teamwork and open communication.
Contact us to learn how you can take meaningful steps toward establishing a culture of intellectual honesty.