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Is it time to rethink and rebrand “difficult conversations”?

At work some years ago I asked my line manager for a pay increase. As far as I was concerned, I was leading my part of the Talent function well, had built some excellent relationships across the business, and had done some industry benchmarking that showed I was underpaid. Having put my case forward, I waited almost three months for some news. I remember starting the follow-up meeting feeling annoyed that I’d had to wait so long, but optimistic about the outcome. However, a few minutes in I was told that whilst senior leadership agreed my performance was strong in most areas, it was considered that in others, I “could be doing more”. I remember feeling bewildered. More in what ways? In which areas? What did she think about my performance? Why was I only hearing about this now? The answers escape me to this day. 

Now, you might be thinking I was about to be told that I could not expect to see my salary climb north. Not so. I was told I would be getting an increase, just “probably not as much” as I’d be expecting. As it happened, it was exactly what I’d targeted. But as an individual committed to the highest standards of performance, the waiting and the confusing delivery left me flummoxed to say the least. 

It seemed to me that one of two things was happening here. Either my performance genuinely hadn’t been up to scratch and I hadn’t been told, or it had been good but avoiding reviewing it openly with me was a way of avoiding a proper pay negotiation. 

Few people relish needing to have such conversations, and it is hardly surprising considering that we are biologically hardwired to want to be liked and to belong. Organisations often understand this, and training on “difficult conversations” is now a regular part of leadership and managerial development programmes. However, this is where the issues start. Thinking of conversations that have the potential to impact significantly either or both of relationships and results as “difficult” ,and labelling them as such, is counterproductive . It means that one of two things normally happens. Either the conversation is endlessly delayed or avoided, hoping the issue at hand blows over, or it is rushed without the emotionally sensitive preparation needed for a successful outcome. 

There are many other terms for these conversations – amongst which I’ve heard plenty of references to “courageous conversations”, and “sensitive conversations” My view is that if there must be a label, the best and most useful is “crucial conversations”. With this there is no presupposition of any one sort of emotional response, either in ourselves or in others; the focus is solely on the importance of them taking place and on a successful outcome. So how do we know we’re in a crucial conversation? 

Joseph Grenny et al, in their book ‘Crucial Conversations’, suggest that these interactions share three characteristics:

  1. Opinions vary 
  2. Stakes are high 
  3. Emotions run strong 

It is all too easy to avoid engaging directly when we recognise these aspects of a situation. However, to quote psychologist Susan David, “discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life’”, and it is certainly the price of admission to a managerial or leadership role. With practice, there are a number of things we can do to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and to increase our confidence and competence in the art of crucial conversations. Much of the following will be known to experienced managers, but this checklist may be a useful reminder:

  1. Make sure we’re preparing to have the right conversation. As Charles Kettering said, “a problem well-stated is a problem half-solved”. Is the conversation we’re going into about a particular task? Is it about repeated behaviour – a pattern we’re noticing? Or is it about issues impacting the quality of our relationship with this person, such as lack of trust? 
  2. Acknowledge our feelings. Emotional intelligence is critical to making sure we’re not jumping to conclusions or being blinded by assumptions. Can we see the situation clearly?
  3. Ensure that we’re going to suggest having the conversation at an optimal time for both parties. It’s unlikely to be in that post-lunch energy dip, or when we know we still need to prepare some documents for the afternoon Board meeting. Crucial conversations should neither be rushed nor unduly delayed. 
  4. The meeting should be proposed when we have had sufficient time for preparation.  In the meeting itself we should present our views clearly and concisely, being aware of what we do and do not know. Avoid making judgements and evaluations. Focus on what matters most and keep the desired outcome in mind – which should always include preserving the relationship.  
  5. Remember that a conversation is not about ‘delivering a message’ and then being done with it. It’s a thoughtful, spacious, supportive “give and take”, and in order to stay in dialogue, high-quality listening is just as important as high-quality talking. The power of listening should never be underestimated. Listening, real listening, requires effort and intention. It requires us to be present, give our full attention, and not become distracted. This in turn creates the space to check any assumptions we might form during the conversation, and to recognise the different emotions arising.
  6. If it feels as if we’re moving away from productive dialogue, and meaningful communication is being hampered by emotion, pause or even postpone the conversation to allow things to cool off. Ensure the other person knows that this isn’t a way of penalising them, but rather of using the power of some time and space to build a productive, successful conversation. 

Laura Simpson is an accredited Executive and Systemic Team coach and leadership development facilitator, and has been part of the Aziz team since 2022. She focuses on evolving individual and collective emotional, relational and communication intelligence to maximise performance and wellbeing. 

About Aziz Corporate

Aziz was founded over 40 years ago by Khalid Aziz, a media pioneer of his day who at 21 became the youngest ever appointed BBC producer.

About Laura Simpson

Laura Simpson is an accredited Executive and Systemic Team coach and leadership development facilitator, and has been part of the Aziz team since 2022. She focuses on evolving individual and collective emotional, relational and communication intelligence to maximise performance and wellbeing.

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