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Have the difficult conversation

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How many times have you delayed an employee evaluation because you needed to give a negative performance appraisal? Have you have decided that you no longer want to work with an unreasonable client, but avoid speaking with him or her about it? Or perhaps you are disturbed by the behavior of a colleague at work but instead of confronting him or her you allow the relationship to deteriorate.

None of these conversations is easy. In fact, in my coaching work with business owners and executives, I have found one of the greatest challenges facing leaders is the art of having the difficult conversation. While some individuals are comfortable facing conflict head on, most of us often avoid difficult conversations because we are not prepared to deal with the potential discomfort of the outcome.

However, I suggest that in your leadership role you may not have the luxury of avoiding these types of interactions. The most important question you can ask yourself is “what price are you paying by not facing conflict directly and having the tough conversation?”

A study in done by CPP Inc., an industry leader in research, training and organizational development tools, examined workplace conflict worldwide. According to the report, on average, U.S. workers spend approximately 2.8 hours a week dealing with conflict, translating into more than 350 billion paid hours annually. Additionally, 10% of workers report project failure as a direct result of workplace conflict.

In addition to the financial cost, the human capital damage for you as a leader and for your team morale cannot be overlooked. Not taking action and/or the time spent worrying and discussing an issue diminishes your effectiveness as a leader.

We all know that initially when we are upset about something, avoiding the situation feels less stressful than confronting it. We tend to “catastrophize” and have irrational thinking about uncomfortable situations. We find that every time we plan to confront a difficult situation our anxiety increases, and if we avoid it we feel much better. And that strategy can work for a short time. However, it often results in a situation occurring that sets us off.

The problem with waiting for a trigger moment is that we risk an out-of-control conversation and outcome. The goal is to act — not react — and to take back control of a situation.

There are two essential steps in this process of having a difficult conversation. The first is thinking: deciding/making the difficult decision to have the conversation. The second is taking action: planning and learning the skills to have the tough conversation.

Preparing for the difficult conversation
The goal of a difficult conversation is to minimize the hurt, anger and guilt associated and to allow for as much dignity and learning to occur as possible.

However the truth is that everyone's perception is their reality. Therefore, in making a tough decision to have a difficult conversation, we first have the conversation with ourselves. We ask: What happened? Who's right? Who's to blame? We explore truth, intention and blame.

Acknowledging all perspectives of a situation is critical to create the necessary objectivity for having a successful outcome. We need to change our judging behavior to learning behavior — the move from certainty to curiosity is important to make these difficult decisions.

Yet it is often difficult to remain objective, especially when someone doesn't live up to our expectations. For example, we can feel defensive if we don't live up to others' expectations of us, angry if they disappoint us and feel guilty if we don't live up to our own self-expectations. Therefore understanding these beliefs can help to clarify the factors impacting our thinking, reactions and decisions.

Four key behaviors to help navigate the difficult conversation
We can never change another person's behavior, however they are forced to change in response to our behavior. The more prepared you are the more in control you will feel. By engaging in the following four actionable behaviors prior to your meeting you can set a positive tone in the interaction and foster a calm presence.

1. Be intentional in your behavior. Identify what your ideal outcome of the conversation would be prior to meeting with the individual.

2. Clarify the issues objectively. Describe the behavior, provide objective data, and do not attack the person.

3. Listen non-defensively and hear the other person's perspective.

4. Acknowledge the other person's feelings and perspective, even if you don't agree with it.

The greatest challenge of engaging in a difficult conversation is living with the consequences of the outcome. While it will help you gain the respect and/or the approval of your client, employee or colleague, far more important is the positive impact that initiating this action will have on your effectiveness as a leader and your business's bottom line.

Denise P. Federer, Ph.D. is founder and principal of Federer Performance Management Group. She has 27 years of experience working with key executives, business leaders and Fortune 500 companies as a behavioral psychologist, consultant, coach and trainer. Contact her at: [email protected]


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