The life of every professional is punctuated by challenging conversations.
For managers, constructive feedback and challenging coaching discussions are layered on top of the myriad issues surrounding projects, work distribution, and workplace squabbles.
Individual contributors strive to find common ground with peers and work to gain traction for ideas in group settings.
Senior leaders talk about change and strategy and goals, often to befuddled audience members wondering what this talk means for them and why they’re being asked to change yet again.
For all of us, almost every discussion in the workplace is a negotiation. We are forever asking people for time or treasure.
While few would argue about the importance of these conversations, mostly we avoid, delay, forestall, dodge, and deflect them.
If we reluctantly engage, we fold, spindle, and mutilate them, leaving money and performance on the table.
In reality, all of us, regardless of our roles need to learn to love challenging conversations.
If you’re not engaging in challenging conversations, you’re hiding.
Quit Holding On to Challenging Conversations Beyond Freshness Dates
When these discussions take place, a good number of them are delivered long after their freshness date, while others are muddled or massacred in delivery.
My law of the declining value of constructive feedback suggests that the value of this feedback divides in half for every day you delay giving it.
During leadership workshops, I ask for a show of hands from managers who have consciously delayed or dodged a challenging conversation.
100% of the hands go up.
I then ask them to keep their hands raised if they are currently stalling on conducting a challenging conversation.
Almost 100% of the hands stay up. (The only people who lower their hands are invariably sitting next to a boss or peer.)
In a typical week, I conduct at least ten extended coaching sessions and one or two group sessions. Every single session includes discussing a strategy for an upcoming or overdue challenging conversation.
If we loved these things, we wouldn’t avoid them.
Yet, challenging conversations are where you mine the gold.
Hope and Help for Succeeding with Challenging Conversations
For must of us, the idea of broaching a topic that might result in personal conflict is enough to trigger a full-scale amygdala hijacking. Our bodies pump adrenaline, and our higher-order processing brains are rudely shoved out of the way in favor of our primitive brains.
The adrenaline infused emotions of fight or flight kick the [email protected] out of our logical thinking every time, unless we learn to control this response.
There are ways to move beyond our typical responses to challenging conversations.
Cultivating a strategy for navigating these discussions is a part of the cure.
Unfortunately, most of us are never trained on the most important aspect of survival and success in the workplace—how to conduct challenging conversations and create value at the same time.
You need help. You need a game plan for approaching, designing, and delivering a challenging conversation.
Success in these discussions is two-parts psychology and one-part preparation.
Read on this topic. Two of my favorites: Crucial Conversations and Talking to Crazy. (I just finished Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life and place it at the top of the list for helpful books on this topic!)
Seek training. Invest in negotiation training or training on coaching and learn and practice the tools and approaches. (Promotional note: I regularly run a great, condensed online training/mentoring program called Succeeding with Challenging Conversations.)
Regardless of where you get the help, you still have to do the most important thing: learn to love challenging conversations.
Recognize: Challenging Conversations are Where You Mine the Gold
I learned to love challenging conversations when I finally accepted that my most important work was helping others succeed in their roles and careers.
I recognized their success determined my success, and that doing everything possible to support their efforts, included engaging in high-value conversations, was part of the formula.
I also learned that the conversations were never about me. Instead, they were about helping, challenging, and enabling good people to do great things.
Once I reframed challenging conversations in my mind as opportunities to create mutual learning, repair relationships, promote change, discuss differing opinions and select a path together, everything changed.
The fear melted.
Amygdala hijack was banished from my life.
Once you establish comfort and confidence for these conversations, you control the pace of progress and results instead of letting the unspoken issues create a drag on progress.
Sure, obstacles are always there, and not everyone responds to even the best planned and executed challenging conversation in an ideal manner. In many cases, the lack of willingness to engage in a dialog on growth and improvement is an important tell on that person’s workplace character.
As you rise through the ranks of leadership, the challenging conversations take on a more significant scope and scale.
Build good habits now—learn to love challenging conversations, and you’ll be one of those leaders who provide clarity and context and inspiration.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
Training and practice are critical components of learning to succeed in challenging conversations. Learning to love these conversations is how you mine the gold from your efforts.