Leadership Skill: How to Have Difficult Conversations

Posted by Andrea Hopke on Thu, Jun 21, 2012

Do you avoid having tough conversations or delay in addressing performance issues on your staff?  Do you find yourself beating around the bush or sugar-coating the message?  If so, you are NOT in the minority...

In our work training over 650 leaders on developing coaching skills, we have found that one of the things that leaders struggle with most is the ability to have difficult conversations in a way that promotes receptivity and that creates both buy-in and motivation to change.  One of the tenets of our 1-on-1 executive coaching program is that conversations create results and serve as the catalyst for meaningful change.  By Merriam-Webster's definition, a conversation is "an oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas."   Many leaders fall into the "giving feedback" trap; feedback is defined as "the transmission of corrective or evaluative information...to the original or controlling source," which is  synonymous with a one-way message.  When feedback is corrective and one-way in nature, is it any surprise when receptivity is low, emotions boil over and behaviors/results don't change? 

Ponder for a moment....do tough conversations really need to be "tough," or is there a way to take out the sting AND simultaneously achieve receptivity, buy-in, and motivation to change?  In her national bestseller, "Fierce Conversations," Susan Scott maintains that "in order to stay competitive, across the board, the best of the best are investing in becoming communications rich... black-belt conversationalists... While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a career, company, a relationship or life - any single conversation can."  Here are 10 tips that, if embraced, will develop your agility in having those tough conversations:

  • Don't react in the heat of the moment - delay the conversation until you are calm
  • Prepare by gathering your thoughts, jotting notes, anticipating potential roadblocks
  •  Increase receptivity by asking permission to have the conversation - really!
  • Assume the best (think "Theory Y" vs. "Theory X" Theory of Management)
  • Be fully present - eliminate all distractions (phone, computer, etc.)
  • ASK QUESTIONS and LISTEN to the answers (think dialogue - not monologue).  Using open-ended questions that promote self-reflection/self-discovery are the real key to success!
  • Remove the words "but" and "why" from your vocabulary as they promote defensiveness - replace with "and" and "what"
  • Vent interfering emotions by simply "noticing" and using a reflexive statement - "you seem upset..."  Often this acknowledgement opens the door to the real heart of the matter...
  • Embrace silence - resist the temptation to "fill in the blank" when someone is thinking
  • Choose pronouns carefully - consider the impact of "we" vs. "you" or "I"

What tough conversations do you need to have to move your team and results forward?  Are you a "black-belt conversationalist?"  If not, what steps are  you willing to take to develop your conversational agility? Susan Scott sums it up in a nutshell, "We can have the conversations needed to create the results we say we want...or we can have all of our reasons why we can't have those conversations.  But we can't have both.  Reasons or results. We get to choose. Which would you rather have?"

Topics: executive coaching, leadership development

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