Managing Difficult Conversations at Work

The Art and Science of Talking About What Matters Most

Difficult conversations  about performance are challenging because they surface in us concerns about losing control, emotions running high or inviting defensive reactions from others. They’re problematic because we miss opportunities to learn and change, promote a culture where underperformance is tolerated and create resentment between colleagues. Here’s an approach that will help you manage yourself, improve mutual learning and reach successful outcomes.

Why Difficult Conversations Are Challenging and Problematic

Imagine one of your direct reports feels their performance levels are consistent with their peer group, they have expectations about their career progression within the organisation and also about their bonus entitlement. You on the other hand see things differently. You view their performance at best median and don’t really see a future for them in your team nor in fact the organisation.  You also have a different perspective about their remuneration entitlement  which you suspect won’t be at all well received.

You’re concerned about having the conversation because you’re worried they might react defensively to what you’ve got to say, you can’t see how this situation could be resolved but you’ve got a difficult message to give and are determined to make sure they ‘get’ the feedback.

These conversations take place on a regular basis, yet most people manage them in a way that generates negative unintended consequences for themselves and others including their organisation.

Unilaterally Controlling Mindset

We are all susceptible to a particular way of thinking when confronted with difficult or challenging conversations. These conversations, where we feel we should exert some authority or influence, tend to activate this way of thinking, our concerns are heightened if we think the conversation has the potential to be emotionally challenging or threatening in some way.

In these moments we think and act in a Unilaterally Controlling way.  Our mindset, assumptions and corresponding behaviours are all geared to controlling the conversation, winning the conversations, reducing the expression of negative feelings and acting rationally.

Instead of being curious we become suspicious, instead of being compassionate we become judgemental, instead of reflecting on our contribution to the problem we see it located entirely with the other person. Our approach to the conversation is rooted in assumptions of ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ and our goal is to control the conversation instead of creating a mutual learning conversation. These are normal and natural modes of thinking, unfortunately in the context of managing a difficult conversation, they are not helpful.

Why These Conversations Are Problematic

Conversations that are not managed effectively are problematic on many levels; because our experiences are not positive we tend to avoid these conversations and by doing so deny ourselves and others the opportunity to learn and grow. We also undermine the emotional contract with our employees because we’re not transparent with them and therefore they’re unable to make free and informed choices about their development and future. By not addressing these issues consistently and effectively we create deeper systemic problems; others in the organisation learn that underperformance is tolerated, resentment can build up between peers as reward structures seem inconsistent with performance and the gap between espoused organisational values and actual behaviour undermines a high performance culture.

Mutual Learning Approach – An Alternative Mindset for Managing Difficult Conversations

The Mutual Learning Approach is a bit like an alternative mental operating system, so instead of having thoughts rooted in values of judgement, blame and suspicion and goals of winning and not losing the conversation, we act out of a different set of core values and assumptions.

The core values of the Mutual Learning Approach include:

1. Transparency –  When you’re transparent you share all relevant information, including your thoughts, feelings and intentions.

2. Curiosity – When you’re curious you are genuinely interested in learning about others’ thoughts and perspectives.

3. Accountability – When you’re accountable  you take responsibility for your actions and the short and long term consequences of your actions, you also promote accountability in others.

4. Informed Choice – When you make informed choices you can make decisions based on having all the relevant information and also maximise others’ abilities to make decisions because you’ve been transparent.

5. Compassion – When you’re compassionate you’re willing to temporarily suspend judgement to appreciate your own and another’s situation.

In conjunction with these values are  8 specific behaviours or conversational strategies that bring the values to life and help you design and manage a difficult conversation. For example:

1. Combining advocacy with inquiry – When you do this you are transparent because you share your thoughts and opinions, you share the relevant information that has led you to form these thoughts and opinions and you are curious about the reaction that your views generate. In other words you’re saying; ‘..this is how I see it and this is why I see it this way, I’m curious do you see it the same way or different.?’. Using this strategy shifts the focus of the conversation from being right to learning about difference which in turn reduces misunderstanding, defensiveness and invites a conversation rather than a series of monologues.

Benefits of the Mutual Learning Approach include:

  • Help reduce misunderstandings - Difficult conversations are often difficult to start, sometimes we ‘ease-in’ to the conversation or fail to articulate coherently the key message or purpose for the conversation. This can lead to the conversation taking longer than it needs to, it can also lead reduced commitment to outcomes, because the outcomes are not clear.
  • Help conversations stay on track – Difficult conversations have a tendency to drift as people avoid raising the difficult issues. This contributes to wasted time and missed opportunities for learning.
  • Ensure members share all relevant information, including facts, feelings and concerns – Difficult conversations often generate emotion that some perceive to be negative. In our interest to be compassionate we minimise the expression of emotion or avoid raising the ‘elephant in the room’. This contributes to missed opportunities for learning and increased misunderstanding.
  • Help members focus on what’s important and agree on what’s happening thus avoiding an impasse or disagreement in the conversation – Difficult conversations can polarise individuals, people get entrenched in a particular view or position and because they can’t agree they agree to disagree and things stay unresolved. This contributes to unproductive conflict and reduced levels of trust.
  • Members can appreciate each other’s needs and concerns – Difficult conversations often activate a particular way of thinking that produces behaviours designed to protect oneself. When in this mode it is very difficult for members to listen to each other let alone appreciate each other’s needs and concerns. This contributes to misunderstandings, blame and defensive behaviours.
  • Members reach decisions that generate maximum joint commitment – When conversations drift off topic, contain unresolved issues and unexpressed needs, any commitment arising out of that conversation is likely to be unsustainable. This contributes to solutions that are ineffective and poor follow through on actions.

We overestimate the risk of having a difficult conversation and underestimate the opportunities for mutual learning and growth. Changing our mindset to one of Mutual Learning will radically enhance the quality of the conversations you have.

To find out where the Mutual Learning Approach originates from click here Difficult Conversations: The Mutual Learning Approach

Please tell me what you think about this approach by posting your comments or questions below. I read and reply to every single one.

Thank you in advance!

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