Are you fearing starting a difficult conversation?
If you answered ‘yes’, the news is that you are not the only one!
A difficult conversation is a type of conversation where negative experiences, behaviours or uncomfortable topics will be discussed. These conversations aim to create a mutual understanding, build awareness, and start a process of change and improvement. It is not about winning or putting the other person down, but about getting out of an unpleasant situation and maintaining respect and dignity.
Sounds easy, positive, and constructive, so why are difficult conversations so difficult?
One study from 2019 shows that more than 80 per cent of workers are avoiding at least one difficult conversation at work—a conversation they know is important but are dreading. In the same study, one in four people have put off their scary conversation for 6 months, one in 10 for an entire year, and another one in 10 admit to avoiding the conversation for more than two years. (VitalSmart, Crucial Learning)
Difficult conversations are even more difficult when the team is working remotely. Some of the leaders I work with share that they never met their team members face to face, and don’t know them that well, so they don’t feel comfortable enough challenging them when needed.
What are the main barriers for leaders to start a difficult conversation?
When working with leaders, the most mentioned reasons for delaying difficult conversations vary, but the following are present in almost all cases:
Difficult and costly conversations
Avoiding difficult conversations is a costly ‘solution’. It costs time, money and resources, and you might start seeing other employees leaving because things don’t go well.
The cost is not in money only but in decreased morale, engagement, trust, safety, and creativity.
The good news is that you can get better at giving constructive feedback and dealing with difficult conversations. It will take time and courage, and is best if there is someone more experienced or knowledgeable walking this journey with you. This can be a coach or a mentor.
“It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” – Mark Twain
Preparation is the key!
These are a few questions that will help you to prepare yourself before starting a difficult conversation. They will guide you on how to approach the situation, what to be aware of and what to avoid doing or saying. They are not a ‘panacea’ but a good start in how to not postpone difficult conversations.
Bonus tip – Treat difficult conversations as an opportunity. After all, they are a learning opportunity; the more you take the chance to practice, the easier it will get. Reflect on the conversation, the situation, and the outcome. What went well, what can you do differently next time? Self-reflection and self-awareness are key elements in leadership. You can find more about this in my previous article: 4 tips on how to build self-awareness and become a more inspiring and authentic leader
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