I highly recommend this week’s excellent episode of Akimbo about Difficult Conversations.
Here’s my summary:
- There are lots of conversations that we think of as “difficult”: telling someone you manage that you’re not happy with their performance; complaining about customer service; asking a friend to change their behaviour. We often find having these conversations hard and even avoid having them – with damaging results.
- But there are are also “difficult” things are easy to talk about, like asking a guest to leave your house in the middle of the night if the house is burning down, or asking a schoolchild to stand in the right place in the lunch queue, or criticising the performance of someone you’re coaching.
- The difference between these two types of conversation – what makes the first set “difficult” – is that in the first case we want more than one thing from the conversation. Things seem “difficult” when we want someone to change (or do something for us, or leave) – and we also want them (or other people) to still like us. It’s the tension between these two things that makes the conversations “difficult”.
- The conversations are that are easy are easy because of a combination of authority (you have the power to enforce what you’re asking for), indifference to the feelings of the person you’re talking to (or at least, a clarity of priorities that allows you to overrule your sensitivity) and enrollment (you share a purpose with the person you are giving feedback to and they know that you are on their side).
- In the case of a fire, all three are on your side: the fact of the fire lends your words with the “authority” of dire consequences; the urgency of saving lives outweighs your scruples about disturbing or upsetting your guest; and presumably your guest is enrolled in your aim of preserving their life.
- In the case of the lunch queue, you are clear in your authority to maintain order, relatively indifferent to the feelings of the children involved regarding this issue – and any enrollment or good relationship makes things easier.
- In the example of coaching, authority comes from expertise and from shared enrollment in the process of improvement, which makes (reasonable) directness possible without the need for great sensitivity to feelings – the person being coached wants the feedback and is willing to try to apply it because they trust you, knowing that you’re on a shared journey of improvement.
If you’re in a situation of positional authority, it might simply be the case that you need to get over your desire to be liked. Often you can do this by focusing on the importance of the outcome you expect from the difficult conversation. For example, getting rid of a client or employee whose behaviour is damaging to your project is worth the price of your discomfort.
If, however, you don’t have positional authority and are relying on influence – and if the relationship is important to you personally or for the project – then you need the authority and trust that come from enrollment on a shared journey. As with the example of the coach, it’s much easier to give and receive feedback or correction when you’re committed to a common set of goals and values.
The catch is that you can’t suddenly create enrollment when you need it – it’s built slowly, far in advance of the crisis – and needs to be built at times when the shared journey costs you rather than them. People are more likely to be on your side when they’ve seen evidence that you’re on theirs, and more likely to believe in the shared journey when they’ve seen you put in the hard yards on their behalf.