What makes difficult conversations so hard?

Working in leadership teams has its challenges and having difficult conversations are part and parcel of the experience. Every difficult conversation with your team is an opportunity to build a bridge to a better overall Workplace Experience. Difficult conversations require courage but they are so worth the effort.

I want to share with you a few key strategies that make difficult conversations more effective, because they will make all the difference in the world to your success. I didn’t say they would make life ‘easy’ – difficult conversations are usually still difficult, but they are ‘easier’ when you know you have done your best, respected your colleague and reduced misunderstanding.

To understand what makes difficult conversations difficult, let’s look at why they are difficult in the first place:

1. Tendency for misunderstanding

Ask a room of ten people whether they have ever received feedback that made them feel awful and you’ll no doubt receive nods. People are generally bad at having difficult conversations, like giving feedback. Your hearer’s ‘fight or flight’ mechanism goes into overdrive when they sense a difficult conversation coming on, because they have learned that they can be painful. That same mechanism means that subtleties are lost – the limbic brain doesn’t deal in subtleties. Difficult conversations are often misunderstood because ‘fight or flight’ kicks in.

2. Self-protection can result in aggression

Perhaps it doesn’t need to be said, but a person in ‘fight or flight’ mode, who feels their deepest values and beliefs are being attacked, could easily slip into aggressive words or behaviour, for self-protection. How does their conversational partner respond? Usually with self-protection in response to aggression. So a cycle sets in. It takes one of the two people – we might call them the braver soul at that moment, with the bigger vision – to stop the cycle. This can be challenging.

3. Deeply held values and beliefs don’t shift easily

I have seen this when organisations introduce flexible work options – flexible work challenges people’s strongly-held views: ‘flexible workers are not ambitious’, ‘flexible workers work less and are poor contributors’. You think, really? Do people really think these things? But yes they do, and they hold onto these views. When a difficult conversation addresses deeply held values and beliefs it really takes a lot of new information to challenge perceptions and sometimes that takes time.

So how do well-meaning, balanced, clever and optimistic people get around these issues to have difficult conversations and build bridges in their teams?

Well firstly, recognise that people on both sides of the conversation are likely to find it difficult. If you can take care of your own tendency for misunderstanding and self-protection and be willing to be open to new ideas, then the conversation just became 50% better.

The way to rise above the difficulties of difficult conversations is to use your cortex – your thinking brain has the ability to rise above your ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. Have a strategy. Follow a set of points. Get through the conversation by sticking to your plan. You can create a better Workplace Experience for everyone by minimising the stress and guilt of badly managed difficult conversations. 

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