Mastering the Art of Difficult Conversations
Updated: Jan 15
A close friend once asked me, “Why do you always have to clear the air? Most of us like the air foggy. We’re British!”
I’m not a fan of fog in any context. Ask any sailor or pilot and they will tell you that at best fog is an inconvenience, at worst it can be life threatening. Metaphorical fog is the same; it causes misunderstanding, confusion and, ultimately, can be the death of relationships.
That’s why I am a champion for mastering the art of difficult conversations. Even though they are by their very nature, ummm, difficult. Society has conditioned us to prioritise short term pleasure, which often leads to long term pain. Put those purchases on your credit card, now – you know you can’t live without that dress! One more piece of cake won’t hurt – it’s your birthday and you deserve to celebrate. The instant gratification habit can be so sweet in the moment but turns so sour once the initial rush of excitement is over.
It’s the same when we don’t commit to having that difficult conversation, the first time the opportunity presents itself. We’ll come up with all the legitimate reasons why we shouldn’t start that conversation: it’s not my responsibility – it’s my manager’s; I can’t face it, today; he’ll go bonkers; she won’t like me; hopefully, the problem will just go away on its own.” And many times, the challenge doesn’t go away, it gets worse. Like a hydra, it grows many heads, so that now we have even more to deal with; ingrained problematic behaviour, mis-assumptions and conflict are all the shipwrecks of an unspoken difficult conversation that could have been averted if we’d only spoken up.
Other life challenges seem to have better support resources than those that require character development.
If you were having some challenges with your weight and wanted to lose a few pounds, the solution would be simple (if not easy): change your diet, join a gym, buy a bike or find a personal trainer – and commit to putting in the work, to achieve your goal.
Finding the tools to support you in Mastering the Art of Difficult Conversations isn’t as straightforward. There are some great books available (see my foot note) but we all know that the reading part is easy – applying the knowledge takes more effort and requires support. And there isn’t a lot of support available – until you get to the uncomfortable end of the spectrum where you are considering talking to HR, marriage guidance, lawyers or mediators. Surely none of us wants that kind of drama in our life?
Talking about losing weight is relatively easy. Yes, you might feel a little embarrassed by the evidence of your over-indulgence but it’s a mainstream conversation. You’ll see the paraphernalia of the weight loss industry everywhere: magazines, supplements, clothes, gyms. The approaches to tackling the problem are endless.
Discussing the subject of mastering the art of difficult conversations is less common. As most of us don’t want to instigate or be on the receiving end of challenging communication, we don’t talk about it. It’s a little like talking about having mental health challenges or discussing having counselling would have been up until recently. It is spoken about reluctantly, often with the same resistance as going to the dentist.
I’ve done a little survey with friends, recently. When I ask them how they feel about having a difficult conversation, most of the time their eyes slide away and their shoulders sag. Sometimes you can see they are replaying the unpleasant memory of a past conflict. They don’t want to continue the discussion. There are also pervasive unconscious biases that influence our behaviour. For example, some of the more extreme prejudices about male and female behaviour and characteristics are ‘all men are big children’ and ‘women are psychos’. Why would you even consider starting a difficult conversation if that is who you thought you were dealing with?
Much of my recent client work has involved helping to resolve conflicts in the workplace. Almost all of the challenges could have been resolved fairly painlessly, had they been addressed much earlier. The amount of pain caused by reluctance to engage in difficult conversations is huge: office feuds never being resolved, time wasted in moaning and gossiping instead of talking with the relevant person, lack of collaboration, redundancy because employees were so ingrained in their behaviour that upskilling them for a new role was impossible. All in all, it creates a huge amount of heart ache and can cost a business a fortune – especially if a dispute ends up going to tribunal.
My experiences, both personal and in business, have compelled me to become an advocate in helping people master the art of handling difficult conversations with dignity and poise. The techniques of mastering this skill are the same as any other; there is a process that can be followed that will generate much better results than avoidance or aggression. Once learned your commitment to practice, practice, practice will determine your level of mastery.
I recently became an accredited mediator with the London School of Mediation to fine tune my skill set in navigating challenging communication. I was delighted by the quality of the programme and the calibre of the trainers, Judith Kelbie and Tessa Harman.
The majority of the training was role play. We had to mediate various conflicts, with curve balls thrown in by the characters involved and concealed information that came to light. It was not plain sailing and some of it was very challenging, but it convinced me more than ever, that it is possible to master the art of handling difficult conversations effectively.
It doesn’t have to be something to terrify us. While there is not a five step formula to follow – there are no life-hacks when it comes to difficult conversations, because each interaction and participant is so unique – there are principles we can follow to master this skill.
Much of the success of handling difficult conversations effectively is the desire to work together to create a mutually satisfactory solution – without drama, blaming or sticking our heads in the sand.
If we look at the state of our world, today – whether it’s politics, education, health, gender balance – we need to bring our courage and unique voices to those difficult conversations. Things are not going to get better on their own, because there are still those who benefit from the out-dated status quo and they will not give up the current paradigm willingly. As ever, we need to be the change we want to see in the world. It starts with baby steps but as we continue to take them, we eventually find we can run a marathon and pave the way for a better world to emerge.
Are you in?
I hope I’ve encouraged you to explore this subject further. I created a free webinar on the subject of difficult conversations for We Are the City, which is still available in their archives.
I’m also starting to hold a monthly live coaching and Q and A session on mastering the art of difficult conversations; if you want to up skill yourself in a safe environment, please join us. Email me at email@example.com for further details.
Vital Conversations – Alec Grimsley
Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most – Bruce Patton, Douglas Stone
Five Conversations: How to Transform Trust, Engagement and Performance at Work.
This Article was first published by We Are The City in November 2020