by Lori Milner: author, entrepreneur, thought leader and founder of Beyond the Dress
Asking for a raise. Ending a relationship. Giving a critical performance review. Saying no to someone in need. Confronting disrespectful or hurtful behaviour. Disagreeing with the majority in a group. Apologizing.
At work, at home and across the backyard fence, difficult conversations are attempted or avoided every day. These are the interactions we stumble through when we must. The ones we practice over and over in our head, trying to figure out in advance what we need to say and wondering afterwards what we should have said. And it always come to us at some arbitrary time like 1am – we wake up and realize what the ideal thing would have been to say.
What makes these situations so difficult to face? It’s our fear of the consequences, whether to raise the issue or rather avoid it. The truth is ‘In the absence of proper information, people come to their own conclusions.’
Based on the best-selling book ‘Difficult Conversations’ by Bruce Patton and Douglas Stone, here are some guidelines on how to best manage crucial conversations:
Check your ego, set your intention. Your ego can get in the way of expressing yourself in ways that serve a positive outcome – for you and for others. There’s a difference between speaking up and talking down to someone, making them feel smaller, stupid or small. Before you enter into a courageous conversation, be very clear about why you are having it. What’s the highest purpose you are trying to serve? A message that comes from the heart, lands on the heart.
Mean what you say. Be candid in your feedback and honest in your opinion. Be sincere. Don’t sugar coat the truth in fluffy compliments and disingenuous flattery.
Set the emotional tone. Be extra careful to ensure you step into it calmly, with a clear idea of what you want to say. It may be worth rehearsing the conversation ahead of time, writing down the key points you want to convey (in case emotions start to hijack your brain) and how you will respond constructively to whatever accusations, grievances or upsets may be bought up. Remember, you have to manage your own emotions first before you can respond well to another’s.
Be vigilant of Victims and Villains. As human beings we live in stories – about ourselves, about other people, and about the situations in which we find ourselves. The issue isn’t that we have stories, but in believing that our stories are “the truth.” Your stories can roadblock fruitful communication before you even begin, so before you engage in a tough conversation, think about the stories you are carrying into it, particularly any that create yourself as a victim or others a villain. Taking the time to genuinely listen to and understand another’s story builds trust and makes others more receptive to your opinions (growing your influence in the process). Listening to others’ stories is the single most powerful communication tool you’ve got.
Facts First. There are always two sides to every story. Before you launch into your opinion of a situation, be sure to clearly state the facts as you see them. It’s possible you may have incomplete information. When you present your opinion as though it was the truth, you are guaranteed to get people off side. So use language that leaves open the possibility of another interpretation on the situation. “I realize I may be missing something, but from what I can see it appears that ...”
Discuss the ‘Undiscussable’. Issues that aren’t talked out get acted out in snide remarks and innuendoes, higher absenteeism and turnover, and lower productivity and engagement. When you are discussing something sensitive, what is left unsaid is often what the conversation really needs to be about. Skirting around the real issue is fruitless. Likewise, burying your head in the sand in the vain hope that an issue will just ‘go away’ on its own is not only cowardly, it’s costly. Acknowledge the unspoken; discuss the “undiscussable.” The cost of engaging in difficult conversations far outweighs the discomfort you feel having it.
Don’t stoop. People don’t always act as we’d like or how we’d expect them to. Such is life. Don’t let the bad behaviour of others be an excuse for your own. While it’s tempting to descend to the same level of pettiness or immaturity as others, it serves no positive purpose. Be the change you want to see in others – when they act small, act big.
Counter defensiveness with humility. When we share something with someone that has an implied criticism, we shouldn’t be surprised when they get defensive. Counter their defensiveness by distinguishing the problem (behaviour or issue) from the person, and invite their input in how to address the issue. Often the solution to a problem is far from obvious. To you or anyone else. Be willing to ask for help in figuring out a better path moving forward, acknowledging that you don’t have the answer but would like to work together to find it. Just as you appreciate when others share their struggles openly with you, so too will others appreciate your own candour and vulnerability.
Be clear in your requests and commitments. When going into a conversation, be clear about the actions or outcomes you’d like to see. Don’t assume others know what you want them to do. Make clear requests with specific actions. E.g. “I would like your support on xyz.” Likewise, only agree to things you are clear you can do. If you can’t find common ground on a path forward, at least agree to stay in dialogue, and if appropriate, schedule another meeting to continue the discussion.
Stay future-focused. There’s a reason so many people excel at laying blame, throwing stones, and criticizing others’ mistakes. It’s easy. Staying focused on what needs to change to keep the same problem from arising again in the future takes more discipline.
So regardless of how many stones you’d like to throw, let them go and focus instead on what you’d like to see more of – whether it’s collaboration, clear communication, better systems, or more accountability.
Here's to owning your conversations.
LORI MILNER is the engaging facilitator, thought leader and mentor known for her insightful approach to being a modern corporate woman. Her brainchild, the successful initiative Beyond the Dress, is the embodiment of her passion to empower women. Beyond the Dress has worked with South Africa’s leading corporates and empowered hundreds of women with valuable insight on how to bridge the gap between work and personal life. Clients include Siemens, Massmart, Alexander Forbes, Life Healthcare Group, RMB Private Bank and Unilever to name a few. Lori has co-authored Own Your Space: The Toolkit for the Working Woman in conjunction with Nadia Bilchik, CNN Editorial Producer. Own Your Space provides practical tools and insights gleaned from workshops held around the world and from interviews with some of South Africa’s most accomplished women to provide you with tried-and-tested techniques, tips and advice to help you boost your career, enhance your confidence and truly own your space on every level. Own Your Space is the ultimate ‘toolkit’ to unleash your true power. It’s for the woman who wants to take her career to new heights and who is ready to fulfil her true potential.
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