By: David Ehrenthal, Principal and Coach, Mach10 Career & Leadership Coaching

My previous article explored the mindset and behaviors that often interfere with my clients’ quest for career advancement: an aversion to difficult conversations.

In this article, I want to share some ideas on how to have those hard conversations. Remember, saying you intend to change and embrace those hard conversations is one thing. Changing your mindset and your behavior, and making it stick, however, is another.

Necessary, But Hardly Sufficient

My leadership coaching process illustrates how change can be achieved. A coaching session starts by establishing what change or goal my client wishes to work on and what they’d like to take away from the 60-minute session. Once this is clear,  the coaching process evolves into dialogue and joint inquiry, to help my client become more aware of what is, rather than what should be. Typically, the client does not mention embracing hard conversations as the desired change; eventually, however, it does emerge.

Once the client a) becomes aware of their aversion to difficult conversations, b) is convinced that this aversion is getting in their way, and c) comes to understand the undesirable consequences of the status quo, the coaching process evolves to joint exploration of other possibilities, followed by experimentation, and action planning.

Immediate awareness of the issue is not automatic because resistance and blind spots can get in the way. Eventually, with mutual trust between coach and client,  the client comes to recognize the vital need to change their perspective and behavior and mobilizes for change.

This process of building awareness of what is, understanding the importance of change and the  consequences of the status quo, and then allocating energy to mobilize for change are all necessary.  These steps, however, are not sufficient for achieving positive and lasting change.

When a client mobilizes for change, they often resist making the transition to the planning and action-taking phases. And when this happens, positive behavioral change is effectively blocked. In this situation, skilled coaches are trained to apply “interventions” to support the client’s transition to planning and action. Sometimes this means role playing, other times it means working with the client’s healthy resistance, a coping mechanism that has very likely outlived its welcome.

When You Don’t Embrace Conflict

Learning to embrace difficult conversations requires discipline. Achieving behavioral change, and making it stick takes patience and long-term commitment. A first step is recognizing that “conflict” in the workplace, as it relates to vision, strategy, tactics and operational issues, has the potential to create considerable business value. Without a culture that’s open and recognizes the value of divergent views, organizations stagnate. Fostering an open and participatory  culture does not mean chaos reigns. Rather, it means more information is available to inform organizational decisions.

So if you possess expertise in an area, or you simply want to share your perspective, the business needs you to speak up. Or when your boss asks you to do things that conflict with your perspective or your values, and thus undermines your feeling of control and personal value, it’s time to have a conversation. If you don’t, you’ll likely find yourself feeling apathetic, demotivated and even angry. And that does nobody any good. Sure, it’s possible that the boss, the organization or the role is just not a good fit for you. In this case, the change that is needed is different.

When these difficult conversations are avoided, your ability to perform your job and drive business value is diminished. And most people would agree: that’s the opposite of the outcome they or the organization wants. Universally, people want to use their competencies, positively  impact the organization, and win recognition for their contributions.

A side note: persistent loss of control in stressful environments often leads to burnout, and burnout can have long lasting negative effects on your available energy and your health. Since WORK = ENERGY, diminished energy capacity works against any desire for personal growth and professional advancement. This phenomenon is explained scientifically in Michael Marmot’s book: The Status Syndrome

5 Tips For Having Difficult Conversations

So how do you have that hard conversation, gain more control, and augment your ability to drive business value? Here are five ideas to consider:

  1. There are multiple realities. You have your own values, beliefs and perceptions. Your interlocutor has their own. When you engage in a hard conversation, be aware of your internal feelings and perceptions and those of your interlocutor. In other words, put yourself in the other person’s shoes. A mutual understanding of each other’s perception and feelings is essential for achieving positive change. Partnering or collaborating means discovering your individual realities and co-creating and executing a plan for change that will move your organization forward.
  2. Take an appreciate stance.  This means starting with what’s working —a more positive discourse— before problem solving. For example, highlighting specific aspects that have worked well, expressing optimism in your work together, showing some excitement, making reference to the other person’s competency that you genuinely appreciate, and then moving to problem solving and some action. There’s a psychophysiological explanation for staying positive, particularly at the start of the conversation. If you’re interested in the scientific basis for this, read Boyatzis. For more on taking an appreciative stance, read The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry by Sue Annis Hammond.
  3. Listen to and be generous with your interlocutor. When we need to have that difficult conversation, we tend to immediately express the problem we perceive and present our plan for resolution. Generally, this will not go well. Instead, start by giving your interlocutor a voice.
  4. Frame the “conflict” as an opportunity to drive business value and not as a “big problem” or a personal struggle between you and your interlocutor. This means recognizing that “conflict” in the workplace is necessary, organic part of positive change for the organization.  It also means that your plan to resolve the “problem” may not be the best one.
  5. Adapt your behavior to the situation. While all of the these tips are useful in all circumstances, how you handle hard conversations will depend on your relationship with the person. How you speak to a peer is quite different from a conversation with a boss or a member of your team who you supervise. With a subordinate, you will have the final say on the matter. With a boss, you won’t. That means you need to work on influencing your boss’s decision and convincing a subordinate that you’ve listened and considered their perspective.

Making Change Stick

Most of us approach conflict with trepidation and avoid the hard conversations. Yet, it’s only by embracing conflict and hard conversations will we perform our jobs and drive positive change in our organization. The key, however, is how we conduct these difficult conversations.

Embracing the tips above and changing your behavior is the first step. If you’re looking for change that sticks, however, you should consider working with a leadership coach. With something as important as difficult conversations, you will sell yourself short without one.

If you’d like to explore my support for leadership coaching, please reach out to me at 617-529-8795 or dehrenthal@mach10career.com. Or visit http://www.mach10career.com.


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