Difficult conversations are risky conversations. It is like taking your car off-road. The journey can be bumpy, unexpected hazards appear at short notice and you’re often heading into uncharted territory. If you’re going to boldly enter the zone of uncomfortable debate (ZOUD) then, just as if you were contemplating an off-road jaunt in your car, you need to make sure you have the right equipment for the job, that you are well-trained and that you have practised the key manoeuvres.I was reminded of this reality during the week whilst facilitating a session on delivering challenging feedback with an international group of leaders on a ‘next level leadership’ programme. Our role play involved a performance management conversation with a team member who was not committed to the courageous goal for the team and whose behaviour was undermining progress. The scene was set for a difficult conversation.
As our willing volunteers jumped in at the deep end to engage the team member it was fascinating to observe the spontaneous ‘off road’ driving that took place. Some played it cautious, driving very slowly, asking open questions and exploring the team member’s objection to the courageous goals. Some took wild turns, spinning the wheel to shift from an empathetic tone to a direct tone as their patience was stretched. Others spun the wheels violently, digging themselves into commitments from which it would be hard to extract themselves at a later time.
What was most valuable was the opportunity that all had to practise their ‘difficult conversation’ skills in a safe environment and then to receive immediate feedback and coaching on their strengths and areas for development. This feedback came from both their peers and the facilitators. In distilling the feedback from these difficult conversations, here are the key manoeuvres I observed:-
- Don’t forget to use the gears
After using clarifying questions to understand the other person’s perspective, there comes a time in all difficult conversations when we need to change gear to focus upon our own needs and those of the organisation.
- Be careful of revving the engine too hard
Our nerves can sometimes catapult us into a direct and challenging opening stance. Take time to check-in with the other person before pressing on with the agenda.
- Don’t look at the map whilst you’re driving
Sometimes we can be so busy working out what we are going to say next that we forget to listen. Pausing to play back and reflect the other person’s views will ensure we stay focussed on the road ahead.
- Accelerate into the corners
It is tempting to back down when faced with obstacles and grievances. Maybe this is also a time to demonstrate your passion and your belief and so re-energise the conversation?
- If you get into a skid then don’t be tempted to slam the brakes
We can find ourselves getting knocked off course by unexpected events. If this happens then rather than giving up on the original agenda it is an opportunity to go back to the beginning, re-cap, re-state and try again.
I hope this blog helps us all reflect on how we improve our ‘difficult conversation’ skills but there really is no substitute for practise, practise, practise. If you have difficult conversations looming then grab a friendly colleague or a trusted advisor, lock yourselves in a room and act it out together. You will be amazed at how quickly you up your game by throwing yourself into the zone of uncomfortable debate. Any short-term discomfort will pay back many times when it comes to the real thing. After all, not many of us passed our driving tests through reading the ‘Highway Code’ alone. For most us it took many painful lessons full of humiliating mistakes before we mastered this core skill in our daily lives.