Ahem, we need to talk: How to prep for difficult conversations

upintheairmagnum -clooney

In the movie, Up in ­­­­­­the Air, Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney) makes a living as a corporate axe man, doing the deed that local managers don’t want to do. He thrives off of the lack of connection to anyone or any place, jets from city to city as a “career transition counsellor” and seemingly heartless when fired employees cry, get angry or even threaten to harm themselves.

As a manager, you don’t want to be in the role of Ryan Bingham – ever.

Many of us as managers and leaders have had to do the uncomfortable work of giving negative feedback, rejecting an idea – or, in the worse cases, dismissal.

Difficult conversations are a reality in the workplace and it’s a skill you can hone. You might even find the tactics you learn useful elsewhere in your life, as a parent guiding social media-entranced teenagers or dealing with a cranky neighbour.

My philosophy is that it doesn’t have to be painful for you or the person you’re talking to, if you follow some simple advice and use the tips I’ve learned from years of experience as a professional facilitator.

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Shed your protective armour

Getting mentally prepared is the first step. The last thing you want is to be tossing and turning all night in the days leading up to the conversation, ruminating on what you’re going to say. (Although, you may still anyway.) But take the time to get your head into a place and be clear about what is important to you and what you would like to accomplish. Put yourself in the position of the employee. Think about what may be going on with them, what are their perspectives, values and intentions?

This involves casting off your defensive emotional armour that helps us justify our actions. If you go in like an armadillo, it is not a constructive starting position.

Your job as a leader is to be compassionate and generous and walk into that meeting with an open mind and a real sense of curiosity. You may think you have all the answers, but you don’t. What does it mean to go in curious? It means you will have to challenge your assumptions and biases – something all of us have.  Your job is to be non-judgmental and impartial.

Like the author Stephen R. Covey said, “We judge ourselves by our intentions – and others by their actions.”

Put aside your assumptions and judgments

Writing down your observations but not characterizing them is a good first step for preparing yourself to be judgment-free. A statement like this, “I noticed you were on your phone a lot in the meeting yesterday and left the room twice,” is preferable to “You were disengaged at the meeting yesterday…” In the second scenario you are issuing a judgement (disengaged) of what you observed vs. sharing objective facts (you were on your phone, you left the room twice).

no-judging

If you can remove the blame-game language, it will go a long way towards diffusing emotions and ‘judge-iness.’ The goal is to give the person a sense of safety by laying out why you’re having the conversation and what you hope to achieve from it.

When I’m in facilitator mode with a room full of people, you might hear “ I am hearing more conversations, I notice that you are no longer writing.” I am sharing what I see and hear, but not my internal assessment of those behaviours and so the room remains judgment free.

Pay attention to the safety of the conversation.  As a facilitator, I am very aware of ‘room safety.’ By that, I don’t mean physical space, but rather the degree to which participants feel that what they say is received with compassion and consideration.  Your job is not to admonish and criticize and, if it is, don’t bother. Your goal is to allow the person to have influence over the conversation, by saying, “I really want to understand your perspective.”

Don’t fear emotions 

There are myriad of hard conversations you might find yourself in, including the performance review, or having to give negative or uncomfortable feedback. Yes, any of these tete-a-tetes can go sideways. But that’s usually because the situation has been allowed to go on for too long without being addressed. The employee probably already feels alienated, unheard, frustrated or apathetic.

In these cases, you really have to spend time unpacking emotional responses, which frankly terrifies most people in the workplace.

But learning how to ask the right questions, without judgment, is the place to start. How you ask the questions are key:  What about this frustrates you? or What makes you angry? And then let the response come to the surface.

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Be prepared to sit in the goo

When they don’t feel heard they can become angry or disengaged. Oddly, the person who talks all the time often feels unheard. Acknowledge the emotion by repeating back to them what you’ve heard them say. They need to know that you are hearing what they are upset about. They need to know you understand their pain, frustration and anger, by giving them their words back to them. This is when people become their real selves, and allows them to release their emotions.

If issues have been left unattended for awhile – be prepared to sit in the goo for awhile. Avoid justifying a circumstance – just listen. Then you can shift to the question: What do you need, what would help this?

Phew, that wasn’t hard at all.

Then you can get unstuck and move on to the possibilities for resolution.

You don’t have to have all the answers

It’s at this point that leaders make the common mistake of having the ready solution. Stop yourself right there. Rather, you should be asking the person, what does success look like for you or what do you want to happen next? This gives them the opportunity to process and interpret their own needs – not having you hand them the answers in a giftbox with a bow on top.

But, keep in mind once you have the solutions, your job still isn’t over.

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Listening = kindness and civility

Wrap up the conversation with an agreement on follow-up steps. Again, this is about you asking decisional questions : What steps can you take, what support do you need and when should we meet next? This makes the person part of the solution, restoring agency to them to design the right solution. Let them figure it out.

Don’t be a Ryan Bingham, armoured up. When we take a more open tack, we can be pleasantly surprised how things can turn out. Just listening to someone is a tremendous act of civility and kindness.

I really like that leading role.

Five strategies for having difficult conversations

  • Approach the conversation with curiosity.
  • Abandon your list of why you are right.
  • Ask open and curious questions. (If you can add, “you idiot at the end of your comment,” it’s neither open nor curious.
  • Assume you don’t know everything.
  • Pay attention to the safety of the conversation. Create the conditions for safety with your behaviours (e.g. active listening) and the physical environment. Thinking about where you have the meeting, sends a message of safety.
  • Ask the person involved for suggestions on how we resolve the circumstance and situation. This gives the person agency to help come to a solution.
  • Be prepared to check in following the conversation.

Have you got a difficult conversation with a group that you need to have? Contact me here.

Resources and reading

Here’s a link to a recent interview on this topic.

Mastering Civility – Susan Porath.

I am loving this book! Susan Porath outlines what incivility is costing leaders and organizations and what to do about it.  Along with being a super interesting read, it offers suggestions for a healthier, happier, more productive workplace, better relationships and results. It’s fun to take the ‘how civil are you’ self assessment!

Give and Take – Adam Grant

This is an interesting listen (I love audible)

It has been assumed that the individual drivers of success and passion, hard work, talent, and luck are unquestionable. In our modern context, success is increasingly dependent on how we interact with others. It turns out that at work, most people operate as either takers, matchers, or givers. Takers strive to get as much as possible from others and matchers aim to trade evenly. Givers are the rare breed of people who contribute to others without expecting anything in return. While this might sound debilitating – it is fascinating to discover how givers are so successful, and what it means to be a giver. If nothing else – you’ll think about pro-bono work, volunteer time and lending ‘your stuff’ differently.

Nonviolent Communication – Marshall Rosenberg

I recommend this book often and refer to it frequently. The nonviolent communication model, at its core, is the model I use as a facilitator.  It is simple and incredibly effective in tense and difficult situations. Absolutely worth the time.

Respect as an Imperative

I have decided to use my Audible account to listen to books that I typically would not read, but would like to read. Audible is a great way to consume those books that can be a challenge for ‘before bed’ readers such as myself. I just finished Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Written in 1936, this book has been a best seller for 80 years. Dale Carnegie courses continue to be widely available.

About once a week, on LinkedIn I see someone reference the research Google conducted which revealed the Five keys to a successful Google team. Item #1 on the list –  psychological safety. Successful groups feel they can take risks without fear of feeling insecure or embarrassment.

A six year study that was released by Harvard Business Review cites the ability to manage conflicting tensions as the most critical predictor of top-team performance. This study showed that teams that debate their ideas have 25% more ideas altogether;  healthy debate is a vital part of their performance.

Recently, I read another HBR article discussing the turnaround at Campell’s (as in soup) due in large part to focusing on a culture which embraced civility and respect.

I found myself thinking about what unites these stories?  What are the underlying connections? I wondered, how did civility and respect become value that needed to be re-discovered?

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While the language at times, in Carnegie’s book makes me cringe (like when he uses the terms housewives and cripples), there are core principles that resonate strongly and feel timeless:

  • Give honest and sincere appreciation
  • Be genuinely interested in others
  • Be a good listener
  • Try honestly to see things from the other’s viewpoint
  • If you’re wrong, admit it

What impact would Carnegie’s principles have on increasing psychological safety, as per Googles findings? If you bring a risky new idea forward and your group is both positive on your work and genuinely interested in what you’ve done – will it enhance psychological safety?

If you describe an intriguing new idea to your colleagues who listens carefully and ask curious questions, will you feel more comfortable bringing new ideas forward? Does it create a climate to generate more, creative new ideas? Will it help you explore your dilemma?

If you are in a disagreement with a colleague but feel that they are genuinely trying to see your viewpoint, will you be more likely to be patient, and curious in return?  Will you be more likely to admit you’re wrong, if you decide that you are? Will you find it easier to seek a mutually beneficial solution?

For me, the answer was yes and that Carnegie’s principles would underly healthy, psychologically safe, group dynamics and that they would enable a successful group dynamic that can exploit conflict for greater creativity.

On election day, lineups at the polls were surprisingly lengthy. A gentleman behind me started grumbling about how the feds and the city couldn’t figure out how to run an election, etc. etc.. My first instinct was to offer the civil but disinterested ‘hmmm’ response. However, since I was fresh off a listen to Carnegie, I decided to engage him.  For thirty minutes I asked genuinely curious questions and listened carefully. I confirmed my understandings and offered him positive affirmation. This seemingly grumpy, former municipal worker, told me with enthusiasm about his work with autistic youth, helping these young people build skills to participate in the workforce. Not an easy job but one that energized him. There was so much more to him than first impressions offered and I found myself deeply admiring this man’s work. 

What is the deeper pattern?  What else unites these stories?

As a facilitator, I operate on a set of working assumptions when I work with groups that look something like this:

  • Everyone has wisdom
  • We need everyone’s wisdom for the wisest results
  • There are no wrong answers
  • Everyone will hear and be heard
  • The whole is greater than the sum of the parts 

I start most workshops with these assumptions. I explain the assumptions to the room in a context that says each of you brings importance, perspective and value to the room that is essential for us to accomplish our goals today.  Without your contributions, we will be less successful.

In this manner, I demonstrate my profound respect for the group.

And there it is… the underlying pattern in these stories – the practice of respect. There was my ‘a ha’ moment.  The dictionary defines respect as: “a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements”.  It is our ability to withhold judgement and be open to the qualities of others, which in turn creates a different set of opportunities.

Former Campbell’s CEO, Doug Conant says:

“we’ve observed that the best way to truly win the hearts and minds of people, and generate huge returns for the organization and its stakeholders, is by leading with civility.  This means spending a considerable amount of effort acknowledging people’s contributions, listening better, respecting others’, and making people feel valued.

In a worldwide poll of over 20,000 employees, Christine Porath, co-author with Doug Conanof Campbell’s article found that employees who felt respected by their leaders reported 56% better health and well-being, 89% greater enjoyment and satisfaction, 92% greater focus and prioritization, 26% more meaning and significance, and 55% more engagement.

Individuals offer profound diversity, opportunity is presented by their diversity and possibilities are available to us through dissemination and aggregation of diversity. And it is available to us when we create a climate of respect.

It seems that respect is a bit of a secret sauce.

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So I like that – respect as secret sauce.  And I am still left with the question of why do we need to re-discover respect as a value? Why has it become harder to find, a bit more shadowy, and a bit more of surprise when we experience it? Why are we excited to state that employees are happier, more productive and healthier in a respectful climate? Why is it news? The questions feels particularly acute in our current digital, social and political climate.

I don’t really have a answer for this – but I happened to listen to a podcast by Farnam Street with Susan Cain author of “Quiet, the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.”

Cain mentioned that in the course of her research she discovered that self help books in the 19th century focused on character, virtue and integrity and in the 20th century – charisma, likability and magnetism. It seems that the criticality of character gave way to the importance of likability.

I am hypothesizing that in the 20th century we lowered the importance of how we interact with people in favour of how we look like we might interact with people.  The ‘appearance of‘ became more valued than the ‘behaviour of‘. Perhaps it was more camera friendly. Perhaps it was marketable. I’m sure it was far sexier. I’ve heard it said that many of our most venerated leaders would never have made it through the grinder of the modern media circus as they wouldn’t have been ‘charismatic’ enough.

I’d be curious about the perspectives of others and I think it merits a deeper dive.

In the meantime, I am compelled by the imperative of respect and the need to grow respect always, everywhere – to increase civility, our ability to handle conflict, our ability to embrace diversity and our ability to discover creativity…. and ever more humbly, to increase the enjoyability of lining up at the next election.