Leadership: How to move from ‘difficult’ to ‘difference-making’ conversations

Few people enjoy holding ‘difficult’ conversations in the workplace, but there are approaches you can take that make these conversations easier and ensure the other party feels understood. By Kate Kearins.

 I have lost count of how many times a colleague has said they’d like to do a course on holding ‘difficult’ conversations. Though some are, no doubt, already skilled in having such discussions, few (if any) colleagues seem to relish this kind of interaction.

I have also heard references to ‘honest’ conversations (surely, we’re not having dishonest conversations at work?), as well as ‘growth conversations’ (perhaps reflecting what we hope they will achieve, for instigator or recipient), or even ‘well-timed’ conversations. My own employer seems to favour ‘conversations that matter’.

Me, I like to think of them as ‘difference-making’ conversations – exchanges that have the potential to make positive differences for individuals, teams, and organisations. That ethos is, arguably, fundamental to what we aspire to achieve as leaders and managers. We work with and through others who, like us, need key information and feedback to learn, grow, and make a difference.

“All these monikers highlight the key driver of such interactions: to make a challenging situation better – for everyone…”

All these monikers highlight the key driver of such interactions: to make a challenging situation better – for everyone.

Occasionally, I’ve been told these conversations – which can involve fronting up to some tough stuff for both parties and be met with initial resistance – brought a profound impact and are hailed as a career-defining moment.

“I know first-hand how uncomfortable these chats can be…”

I know first-hand how uncomfortable these chats can be. I certainly did not want to hear I’d been overlooked for a particular leadership role, and I am always a little leary of telling others, on occasion, that we’ve chosen someone else ahead of them. I also did not love being told I was out of line a few years back, after interrogating a visitor during a large meeting. I am now more careful.

AUT Business School has recently undergone an internal restructure, with new department groupings established to better reflect and align areas of academic pursuit. The changes have catalysed me to suggest that our new departmental leaders start as they mean to continue and let colleagues know directly if their behaviours are causing issues – rather than telling me.

As members of a learning organisation, we all stand to learn more (and do better) if we take opportunities for feedback, if we triangulate the views offered us in cases where we think there could be misalignment, and if we pause to reflect. An example? We’ve just had staff awards, and we’ve offered the opportunity for developmental feedback to the unsuccessful candidates. We do that with those who fail to make a promotion, too.

“A positive, solution-focused kōrero allows both parties to understand what might have led to the behaviour and find ways to take a different approach…”

As far as giving feedback goes, there is plenty of advice to draw on, starting with framing the conversation in a constructive rather than critical way. That framing creates a space for learning. While poor behaviour needs to be called out, a positive, solution-focused kōrero allows both parties to understand what might have led to the behaviour and find ways to take a different approach next time.

How, then, to help turn difficult conversations into difference-making dialogues? Combative conversations are rarely useful. No one is ‘victorious’ if someone feels they’ve lost and the other has won. This approach aligns with the mantra, “People almost never change without feeling understood.” Staying curious and open to hearing their perception of the situation, or why things may have occurred as they did, is also key.

Remaining calm, slowing the pace, and taking time with people is also crucial. In my experience, these meetings often take more time, so the challenge is to find the balance. More than an hour is too long; I find we all start to circle back: better to arrange a follow-up meeting if needed.

Though some experts advise planning the conversation in advance (say, through an agenda or agreed talking points), I tend to feel these conversations flow better without undue scripting or rehearsing. Sometimes points will likely need repeating to underscore their importance. Facts stated without embellishment or emotional language are a useful basis for building a discussion.

Another recommendation is to follow-up with an email thanking the person for meeting and noting salient aspects, any agreed action points, and timelines for follow-up.

“I have rarely come across someone who regrets having raised a tricky issue with their colleague…”

For sure, we don’t need to hold so-called difference-making conversations all the time. But when we do, the thought and care that go into them will likely be evident in the outcomes they bring. I have rarely come across someone who regrets having raised a tricky issue with their colleague. There is a risk of adverse reaction, of course, and we can often think through some of those possibilities in advance.

The act of addressing, discussing, and understanding such problems can bring shared understanding, insights, and commitment to change that benefit the whole organisation and the individual.

Kate Kearins is Professor of Management and Pro Vice Chancellor and Dean of the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law at Auckland University of Technology. She is a columnist for Management magazine.

 

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