A leader's guide to difficult conversations
“A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.” I was reminded of this excellent Timothy Ferriss quote recently when talking with a business associate about how demotivating the prospect of professional conflict can be. The uncomfortable truth is, difficult conversations are a reality in all aspects of life; whether in professional circumstances or otherwise. We will often be faced with situations or relationships that feel challenging, and at times hostile. For most leaders in the organisations we partner with, facing difficult conversations in their professional environment is an even more regular occurrence.
In the context of leadership, and leadership development specifically, we often focus on what success looks like and how it can be measured. However, we rarely acknowledge that the route to achieving success will almost certainly include uncomfortable moments and some difficult conversations. What changes will we see? How will these changes create positive impact in your organisation? What will success look and feel like? All important and valid questions. But do they really address the profound challenges that must be met and overcome to achieve desired outcomes?
Don't avoid difficult conversations
A significant number of the leaders we work with actively avoid conflict or uncomfortable interactions because they fear potential fallout. Avoiding conflict can have a significant and damaging impact on your organisation’s culture for the following reasons:
- It creates an environment of mistrust. A lack of open communication and feedback prohibits the development of trusted relationships.
- Poor behaviours and/or performance are ignored and become the new standard. This poses a risk to the wellbeing, commitment and work quality of high performers and champions of your culture.
- It role models a destructive communication approach. Leaders set the standard – if they avoid difficult conversations then the rest of their team will follow.
- It’s a barrier to professional and personal development. Positive change can only occur if existing behaviours or performance are recognised, discussed and enhanced.
Adopt a growth mindset
A growth mindset is a fundamental starting point in overcoming the natural impulse to avoid difficult conversations. Through establishing a belief that each of these interactions can be used as a development opportunity by both parties, the element of fear can be lessened to a large extent. It is difficult to bring about a positive prediction when your internal voice is, most frequently, the loudest and the harshest critic. It’s the one that tells you to expect the worst, to question your conviction, to doubt your position. So adopting a growth mindset can be a useful tool in managing negative internal dialogue. This is the key to navigating difficult conversations, and therefore the key to success.
Preparation and practice are also critical before you tackle a difficult conversation. Silence (or soften) the inner critic through considering a number of possible outcomes and rationalising them before you begin. What is the worst that can happen here? How likely is that outcome? What is my objective for this conversation? Showing respect, honesty and authenticity in the interaction will maximise the potential of achieving a successful outcome.
A simple but highly impactful model that we have used with a number of organisations for feedback purposes is CEDAR.
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About the author
Aidan Stoate is the New Zealand CEO of Inspire Group, an award-winning learning design consultancy that delivers world-class solutions to organisations globally. Aidan has a passion for helping organisations improve their culture and performance through innovative learning and development interventions. As an ICF accredited organisational coach, Aidan provides subject matter expertise for the design and delivery of leadership programmes, whilst leading the Inspire Group New Zealand business across all projects and disciplines. Having led organisations and teams in the UK, South-East Asia, North America and Australasia, Aidan brings a nuanced perspective whilst promoting inclusive, engaging and contextualised solutions that drive genuine behaviour change and strategic benefits.