Difficult conversations, challenging conversations, courageous conversations
We all have to have them at work (and sometimes at home!), and it must be one of the most common themes that raises its head in my leadership coaching sessions.
I’ve been back to school, (well working in schools) and goodness have I been learning a lot recently. As well as being a coaching topic of conversation, I run workshops on courageous conversations, and not only am I discovering the true meaning of coaching, (in another article you’ll find me talking about ‘how to coach through sharing’) but I am seeing more examples of tough conversations and more ways to handle them.
I will give you some tips on how to have your courageous conversations, but first it might be more help to highlight ways in which you can discover how to plan them for yourselves. After all, it is you who will be in the room, not me!
There are any number of resources on how to have difficult conversations and over the past 18 months I seem to have been doing a lot of reading (as well as listening!) around the subject, so I will be distilling some of the points which seem to shine through most often.
We worry about conflict
Not all conflict is bad. It’s just that the word itself has negative connotations. Consider ‘challenge’, or ‘competition’ or ‘different perspectives’. Quite often what we see at first to be conflict can actually be questioning, challenging or re-framing.
Let’s face it, healthy challenge broadens the mind and promotes new understandings and perspectives. It keeps us all awake to new or alternative views, different ideas or alternative beliefs and values. In our communities, this social element is crucial and whilst we don’t have to agree with opposing views, if we avoid being judgmental then things can immediately start to ease up: once we start to understand someone else’s view we can start to walk in their shoes.
Think about sport perhaps? Living in Wales we see the fierce competition and battles of words every Six Nations when the Welsh/English match comes up. The strength of feeling is almost tangible, but it is sport and the effect of disagreements is limited. Everyone (pretty much) moves on. (And then we have the same next time!) The competition is healthy and stimulating.
Oh, and just a thought; if you never need to have a ‘difficult’ conversation, if you never have any opposing views, then it is worth asking yourself if you are looking straight past it and giving it a wide berth. (You won’t be the first person to do this!)
What sort of conversation is it?
So, having taken some of the sting out of the idea of conflict or disagreement, it’s worth stepping back and thinking about what kind of ‘difficult’ conversation it needs to be. There is merit in picking your battles, nobody likes a nit-picker. Look for the things which really matter.
Let’s start with the toughest: these are issues which are around serious misconduct, behaviour or ongoing performance issues. They may have already escalated to include HR and could have implications for long term employment. Someone has to have these conversations, but – apart from gross misconduct – they should have been picked up and managed over a period of time.
Next in line are the issues that affect the day to day: in schools it might be a failure to create an effective learning environment, marking books or drifting away from the curriculum.
The least tricky might be about dealing with lateness, forgetfulness or a change in someone’s way of working.
A small aside here; performance reviews and appraisals are not the place for dealing with these problems. Remember a golden rule – no shocks or surprises in appraisals. They are there to develop good performance and although they need to allow for review of past work, having a ‘difficult conversation’ within that forum is going to damage chances of a positive meeting to look to the future.
Doorstepping and corridor conversations
Let’s be clear: if you need to deal with something that is going wrong it needs to be given the time, consideration and respect that it warrants. Creating a formal meeting means that you and the other individual can focus on what needs to be discussed. Imagine a box and put the conversation into it, take it somewhere safe to open it where you can both explore the contents in a safe space. As you take the issues out of the box in that space you can look at them carefully and without interruption. They will show their importance much better than a quick, ‘..oh, by the way….’
The great thing is that these are not my tips, they are not taken from a book, they are not generic rules. They are taken from Senior Leaders in Education who worked closely together and attended our workshop. I love this and it is what really got me to thinking about how effective coaching comes from sharing. Certainly, there will not be any great surprises in these top tips if you are used to having difficult conversations, but the wonderful thing about these in particular is that they are drawn up by the very people who will be using them, so they can be taken back to the real world in a ready to use form.
- Plan what you are going to say. (Practice aloud, talk to the dog, go through it with a colleague – like role play).
- Be empathetic rather than sympathetic (Don’t ‘collude’, but do build rapport).
- Listen between the lines (Interpret, listen actively).
- Allow the other person time to talk (let them think, LISTEN to their solutions, allow yourself time to think, hold the silence!).
- Have a detailed and objective understanding of the issue. HAVE CLEAR EXPECTATIONS (outcome, tone of conversation, what can be achieved in one conversation)
- Be clear from the very start of the conversation.
- Be precise, be clear, be specific, be concise, use careful questioning
- Stick to the message.
- Be open-minded and non-judgmental (Listen to their views but be clear on the required outcome).
- Consider how you use ‘we’, ‘I’, ‘you’. (We are a team, I will help you, you need to do this, we all want the same outcome – for the children ultimately).
- Gain commitment and check understanding (Set deadlines, review times).
- Work with the whole team for a solution (Don’t take it all on yourself).
- Bounce things back, keep the ball in their court. They need to think of solutions, take responsibility)
- Remember, you can do this. YOU’VE GOT THIS!!
There is no quick way to learn how to have these courageous conversations – I could run an entire programme on the different elements that come into consideration. I’m not sure that they get any easier with experience, but what I am pretty certain about is that – with practice and experience) we can get braver about having them.