Let’s face it, leaders are tasked with having tough conversations. Delivering a negative performance appraisal, ending a professional relationship, delivering tough feedback, holding someone accountable, taking responsibility for breakdowns, or delivering bad news are all prime examples of those conversations.
A powerful way to engage in these difficult conversations is to connect them to something that is fundamentally important to you or what you are committed to creating. From this viewpoint, these conversations become critical to fulfilling on what matters. Or said another way, they become an opportunity instead of something to avoid.
Why is it so difficult anyway?
If I asked you, “why do you avoid having difficult conversations”, what would you say? Perhaps some of the following would be on your list:
• I’m worried about the reaction of the other person.
• What if I can’t handle their reaction?
• I might make the problem worse.
• Why bother, nothing will change.
• I might look bad, or look like I’m being petty.
• What if I’m wrong?
And so on and so on… Guess what these (and any reasons that you could add) have in common?
They are simply predictions. They may be valid predictions, but nonetheless, they are simply creations of our brain. More directly, these predictions are manufactured by us and do not yet exist in the physical world. However, what does exist currently are the consequences of you not acting.
The primary survival function of our brain is to help us identify risk and have us take actions to avoid the risk. Our brain uses our past (or the past of others) to predict threatening outcomes. Our resulting actions are a normal response that is in line with surviving these past-based predictions.
Transform difficult to opportunity: Connect with what really matters to you.
The secret is to create a situation in your mind, in which it is more painful (or threatening) for your brain not to act.
For example, I was avoiding having a conversation with a teammate whose tardiness was starting to frustrate the team dynamic. This person always had reasonable explanations and so I tolerated it. The truth is, I didn’t want to come across as the “heavy” or even threaten my relationship with him over 5 minutes here and 10 minutes there. Ah ha! There’s the prediction: “I’ll be seen as petty and could damage my friendship” – a valid prediction but it is still being manufactured by me (i.e. it did not exist). What did exist was the eroding team dynamic. Oh-oh!
When I remembered a promise and desire we all made to be high-performance professionals (i.e. walk our talk) I saw that my inactions were consistent with not being a high-performance professional. Ouch! When I got that I was not fulfilling my promise to something that really mattered to me (and the group) and it was damaging our performance—it started to be more threatening to me than my worry about being “petty”. Worse, when I noted that I was eroding my own credibility with the team by not living up to my duty as the team lead, the worry of being the “heavy” quickly became less important (it didn’t go away), I was able to have the conversation from a much more grounded place.
The intention of the conversation became an opportunity to restore our team’s integrity with our commitment as opposed to being the “heavy” or making him “wrong”. In other words the conversation became an opportunity to demonstrate a tangible expression of our commitment. Ah ha! There’s the source of my courage. When I had the conversation, it was not about pointing out that our teammate was late, it became a conversation about what it takes to be a professional team.
When you notice you are avoiding a difficult conversation follow these steps to help you find your courage:
Reveal your predictions—Ask yourself one (or several) of the following:
• If you have the conversation, what worries you about it?
• What do you fear in having the conversation or taking action?
• What is likely to happen during the conversation or after?
• Do the answers to any of the above questions currently exist in the present?
• What does exist in the present? (the answer to this question should be uncomfortable)
Observe that the answers might be related to predictions related to “getting by” and that they haven’t happened yet.
Next, are you committed to ‘getting by” or to something greater? Connect with your greater commitment—Ask yourself one (or several) of the following:
• Who is depending on me to have this conversation? Who am I letting down by not having the conversation?
• What promise did you make to yourself or others that is not being fulfilled by you not acting?
• What is happening (facts) that is inconsistent with a commitment?
• What is the impact of me not acting? Am I committed to that?
Reframe the answers into a statement of intent. Something like, “I am having this conversation to restore or act on [insert promise] or to resolve a situation that is inconsistent with our commitment [see breakdowns] and [insert names] depends on me…”. This becomes your source of courage and your place to come from before, during, and after the conversation. For example, here was what I said to my colleague, “Hey John, I just got re-focused on our commitment to being a high-performance team of professionals. If you’re still committed to that, then showing up on time matters. What else are you committed to that is getting in the way?”
In situations like this, I remember what coach Tom Landry used to say, “My job is to get you to do things you don’t want to do, so that you can become the person you always wanted to become…”
In the end, my prediction of being “petty” or “the heavy” didn’t happen. In fact, that tardy team member thanked me for reminding him about what was important to him too.