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

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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).

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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.

Behind the scenes: A facilitator’s dilemma

Update: Here’s what happened!

June 6, 2019 – Thanks to those of you who weighed in on social media and offered thoughts based on your own experience to this post.

I wanted to make sure I delivered an update to close the loop and share a pretty interesting lesson learned – one I wasn’t expecting from this situation.

Normally, in my work, if a group is searching for a way forward, I would recommend some sort of consensus-based solution which sometimes feels like a compromise. In this case, as I write below in my original post, my own advice probably would have been to get both people to try and find common ground and act in good faith as they both moved more closely toward it.

In fact, in this scenario neither I nor my fellow consultant had to really give anything up or change the way we do things.

Instead, we just worked hard to keep our sections separate and define our scope and goals for the audience. I think the saving grace really was that we had discussed it beforehand and realized that the value, outcome and skills we were offering to the client were different.

So, we told them that! The consultant explained she was there to review and aggregate data, draw out insights and offer advice from her lens of experience. I explained that I was there to help the group explore the content, discern patterns, generate insight and draw their own conclusions.

Together they determined their next steps.

christin-hume-482925-unsplashThe consultant and I kept our sections separate and never interfered or interjected during each other’s activity – knowing it could confuse the crowd if we did.

We both had plenty of time to work with the group, and the client’s support, to let our skills shine. And, it turned out to be a great pair of workshops – for all involved.

Overall, the client was happy we were able to accomplish separately for her what she needed us to do.

What would you have done in this situation? Feel free to tell me in the comments below.

Behind the scenes: A facilitator’s dilemma

I have written recently on a topic that I have plenty of experience with. Infighting, or a sense of competition between teams in the workplace, and how either a facilitator, or a group leader, can work to resolve it.

But here’s the thing. Even though I’ve got lots of helpful answers for those facing this morale-dampening corporate squabbling, these types of situations can be pretty stubborn to solve.

And even though I like to think I’m pretty good at what I do, I don’t always have all the answers.

When it comes to opposing positions, things aren’t always black and white. And even professional consensus-builders like me don’t get a pass.

Here’s a recent example that has led me to follow all my own advice – and hey, I’ll admit, it’s tough work with no easy answer. Here’s the scenario:

I was recently paired with a professional consultant to tackle a project for a valued client.

Because of the very different nature of what we both do, we almost immediately had a clash of approaches.

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It makes sense: a consultant is hired to bring the answer to the table.

Meanwhile, a facilitator’s job is to bring the answer out from the group of participants.

A consultant formulates opinions and shares their work, a facilitator discerns the opinions of the group.

A consultant provides content, the facilitator provides process. A consultant is hired for what they know, a facilitator is hired to help the group bring forward what they know.

So, she and I continue to go back and forth on how we want to run our joint session. Her job is to offer her insights and gain the approval of the group and mine is to discover what the group thinks and enable them to agree with each other.

Honestly, I am not entirely sure how we will resolve our distinct approaches.  And please stay tuned to hear how it ended up.

But I will tell you, in the meantime, it has reminded me that when you’re coming at a problem or opportunity from different mindsets, even if both have some willingness to compromise, the final outcome may not look like what you wanted or hoped it would be going in.

Why can’t we all just get along? Easy tips for building stronger teams

What’s the cost of infighting?

I recently wrote about the damage that infighting, or an “us versus them” mentality can bring to organizations. When groups aren’t getting along – or see themselves as competing with other departments or team members – it can drain productivity, dampen morale and lead to a lasting sense of bad blood between the opposing groups.

Why look to facilitation?

Part of what I do as a professional facilitator is to resolve old hurts, engineer a better sense of collective understanding and ultimately, build stronger teams.

Whether it’s a more general goal, like helping groups work better together, or a specific one – like putting together a strategic plan – leaders can use a similar process to reconcile perceived differences.

These are tried and true ways of building bridges, and often start with a simple clearing of the air and bringing misunderstandings – or different understandings – into the open.

Who needs this?

If you’re a leader, or work alongside a group that is having trouble coming to consensus, there are a few methods you can try to help bring everyone back onto a similar page.

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Try these tips – pulled straight from my facilitator handbook – to help reduce siloed thinking and find unity even among widely varying opinions.

It makes a world of difference – and here’s how you can try it easily, yourself, from the comfort of your own meeting room.

  • Get it all out

Ask everyone to tell you (or the group) everything they know about the subject. What are all the known facts about a topic or subject? Get everyone’s perspective, even when they are at odds. Then ask what is exciting? Concerning? Where are they feeling positive?  Negative?  Where is information missing? What else might they need to know?

  • Use active listening

You can borrow some of the specific exercises I outlined in a previous blog, or, more informally, you can simply give people on your team five minutes to talk about their perspective without interruption. Everyone just listens. Then let someone with an opposing or different perspective talk for five minutes, uninterrupted. If there’s a party with a third perspective, ask them to speak for five minutes, without interruption. By doing that, you can help give a sense that there is a space for all perspectives to sit around the table.

When all the sides have been heard (without interruption), ask the group to summarize their understanding of each perspective and confirm with the speakers that their perspectives have been correctly heard. In this manner, the group affirms its understanding of the various perspectives.

Often, I find the people that talk the fastest, the loudest, the most passionately, the ones with the most vehemence, often haven’t felt heard. They hang on to a position because they’re desperate for someone to simply hear them say it.  You can easily ease this by simply allowing them to fully hold court and present their view and understanding of an issue.

  • Focus on commonalities
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If you’re finding teams or individuals are working at cross-purposes, try to find a common interest. Is there any common ground they can agree on? What are they worried about? What’s at risk? What are the implications if they don’t get the answer they’re looking for? What are some alternatives?

If you’re able to move towards common ground, even, say, making a joint recommendation from a shared position, then you start to move away from gridlock.

  • Reframe “rightness” and “wrongness”

Is being wrong so bad?

In her book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Katheryn Shultz writes that when you open your mind to other opinions than your own, when you stop laser-focusing on being right, you can enable a whole new level of learning, brainstorming, problem solving and creativity.

But it’s tough! As she points out, since grade school, we’ve all been conditioned to try and get the best marks, find the right answer. And if we’re wrong, we’re diminished. We feel embarrassed, ashamed, rejected.

Yet, she contends, when you get a “right answer,” you’re simply affirming something you already know – and where’s the growth it that?

Only when you explore wrongness can you truly grow and learn something new.

With this in mind, try to encourage a mindset during group discussions that that nothing participants say is wrong. This will help create movement in the room – when that fear is reduced and when people find themselves more comfortable sharing ideas from all different viewpoints – and listening to those who they might usually not.

5) Think like a facilitator

If you’re facing a situation where your team members are really stuck – and you find yourself in the middle – don’t be afraid to say it. It’s not unusual for me to observe an impasse during a group discussion and share that observation with the group. I will ask the group if they see it differently.  And then I will ask the group for ideas on how to move forward: maybe everyone needs a break, maybe everyone wants to continue to hack away at the problem, or maybe we can shift tracks and tackle another issue and return to the sticky issue later.

When in doubt, I always put it back to the group, so they understand where they are at in the process, and so that the group has the opportunity to identify what they need in order to find their way back to a productive place.

I’ll be honest, there used to be a time when I felt that I was failing to “own the meeting” when I turned the decision back to the group (i.e. how could I run the meeting if I didn’t have all the answers?). Now I understand that I never owned the meeting in the first place, the group did. My job was – and is – to help the group decide what it wanted… And, in a lot of cases, this is a leader’s role too. If this scenario sounds familiar, I encourage you to take a moment, forget about ownership, and think more about consensus – like a facilitator!