Across a wide range of industries and sectors in the United States today, 70 percent of employees are avoiding difficult conversations with their boss, colleagues, or direct reports. This is unfortunate because avoiding difficult conversations reduces productivity, stifles innovation, erodes employee engagement, diminishes organizational trust, and destroys teamwork. On the other hand, having the courage to engage in difficult conversations can often prevent emerging issues from evolving into major problems.
Some of the most common causes of difficult conversations are conflicting interests, different personal styles, lack of trust, different views of the facts, or strong emotions. Since difficult conversations are inevitable, how can we best handle them when they arise? Consider four fundamentals: 1) Decide whether you should have the conversation, 2) Emotionally prepare for it, 3) Understand the neurochemistry of difficult conversations, and 4) Lead the conversation toward a positive outcome.
1) Decide whether you should have the conversation
When considering whether you should have the conversation, ask yourself three questions: Does the person’s short- or long-term success rely on addressing the issue? Is the issue important to the organization’s success? Does the situation concern others in such a way that it could escalate if not addressed? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then the conversation probably needs to happen. If not, it may be best to focus your time and energy elsewhere.
2) Emotionally prepare for the conversation
If you decide that you need to have the conversation, prepare for it by assessing the issue and related assumptions from all applicable perspectives while paying particular attention to the emotions surrounding the situation. Reflect on your feelings about the issue, and empathize with the person’s feelings as well. Focus on honing your “conversational intelligence,” which Judith Glaser, former CEO of Benchmark Communications, describes as the “ability to connect and think innovatively, empathetically, creatively and strategically with others.”
3) Understand the neurochemistry of difficult conversations
A difficult conversation can threaten the identity and value of the person to whom you’re providing feedback. When our identity or value is threatened, our brain produces higher levels of cortisol. This neurochemical reaction shuts down thinking, and activates conflict aversion and self-protection behaviors.
How can you prevent this so your feedback is effectively received? Be as positive as possible. Positive comments in conversations produce oxytocin in our brain, which enhances our ability to communicate, collaborate, and trust others.
The top five oxytocin-producing (positive) conversational behaviors are:
And the top five cortisol-producing (negative) conversational behaviors are:
Bottom line – show empathy and genuine concern for the other person, and always assume positive intentions.
4) Lead the conversation toward a positive outcome
Tying this all together, here are some practical techniques to help you lead a difficult conversation toward a positive outcome:
Difficult conversations require courage, but they don’t have to be so difficult. By choosing your conversations wisely, preparing well, understanding neurochemical drivers, and leading the discussion toward a positive outcome, you can prevent emerging issues from evolving into major problems and, in the process, help take your team to the next level of engagement and productivity.
To dive deeper on the topic of difficult conversations, check out The Substance of Leadership: A Practical Framework for Effectively Leading a High-Performing Team. Also, take the five-minute Performance Pressure Test for more insight into how well you’re performing as a leader.