The start of the Brexit negotiations has highlighted the problems with handling difficult - sometimes embarrassing and emotionally-charged - conversations. The PM has already set out her position by promising to be “bloody difficult”.
A sense of awkwardness puts people on the defensive, makes them reticent and has a negative affect on decision-making in general.
It’s important for managers - but also staff at all levels - to learn how to avoid being put on the back foot, manage the embarrassment and get the best outcomes for both sides of the situation.
That’s not to say that disagreements in themselves are a ‘bad thing’. It’s a part of a healthy workplace environment, where there are always going to be different kinds of people from different backgrounds and perspectives. Disagreement is often the root of innovation.
The problems come from a negative response by managers and the organisation - leading to clashes of personality and more long-term, energy-sapping grievances and disputes.
The first rule is that it’s possible - and useful - to have good ‘difficult’ conversations.
Mistakes are both common and fundamental:
- Right/wrong thinking: we start out believing we can use logic - or our authority - to produce a simple outcome, when the situation may be more complex. Assuming that someone in the situation is right and someone’s wrong usually means one person walking away feeling both ‘wrong’ and ‘wronged’, and faced with needing to comply with a decision that’s been enforced.
- Forgetting feelings: sticking to ‘facts’ is tempting (and makes life easier), but extracting the human feelings involved also leads to a limited perspective on what the disagreement is about.
- Assumptions around causes: we prefer to see our successes as being due to our efforts and abilities, and failures due to bad luck and factors beyond our control. But when it comes to other people this tends to be in reverse - they are to blame and not the situation. The best handling of difficult conversations is dependent on a level of honesty and good will - admit your frailties and be benevolent when it comes to thinking about other people.
When it comes to dealing with a difficult conversation, the aim is to both sort out a problem at the same time as ensuring the relationship is kept positive and constructive. It’s the tension between these two elements that makes managers sweat.
They start to look at choices: avoiding the problem and hoping it goes away; trying to prioritise looking after the relationship over the question that needs to be resolved; just focusing on getting the task done.
There are obvious risks attached to each of these. The manager who simply keeps their head down is the ‘apathetic’ type - seen by the team as unavailable, aloof, unreliable and ineffectual. Avoiding talking about something difficult might work the first time, but stores up ongoing problems and implications and resentments that create a far more difficult tangle to unpick.
As a result people feel the need to fill in the gap of management, leading to confusion and sub-managers who change the nature of the team and its direction.
The manager who makes sure they get the tasks done even at the cost of the quality of the working relationship, can be seen as the ‘nasty’ type.
They may also be described (but not to their face) as aggressive, tough, bullying, directive and difficult. The employee may comply with what the manager says but will not commit; and without real engagement the manager has trouble ahead. Employees may go on to withhold information from the manager which can, longer term, result in the manager making poor decisions, and be cut off from support, input and new ideas.
The manager eventually gets a reputation as being ‘difficult’, abrasive and lacking in interpersonal deftness, which hampers their career development.
Emphasising the relationship at the expense of tasks can lead to a manager being described as ‘nice’ but also as easy-going, a ‘soft touch’, even ineffectual. Things don’t done and people waste time because they don’t take action themselves. The manager gets burn-out from taking on too much responsibility and from the stress of being nice, and doesn’t learn the strong management skills so may find it harder to develop their career.
Taking the compromise route takes all three of the following qualities: honesty, benevolence and courage.
Honesty to include yourself as part of the conversation, to be able to say what you need, express your thoughts and describe your feelings, allowing yourself to know what you think and feel, and be able to give a more or less accurate rendering, rather than a misleading or manipulated version. Benevolence should be your motivation in how you feel and act towards others during a difficult conversation.
Good will, not a need to “care-take” or rescue, means being motivated to do the best for oneself, for others, and for the organisation we work for. And courage to have open conversations at all, the willingness to be vulnerable in the service of understanding.
In practice, there are five skills to master as a basis for good conversations in tough situations:
- Prepare: actively decide an conversation is needed - don’t be bounced in to it by circumstances or in an emotional way. Plan what you want to accomplish: ’what do I need to talk about? what do I really want for myself, for them, for the relationship?’.
- Don’t assume: ask exploratory questions and show a meaningful interest in what the employee thinks, believes, fears, and wants. Not only is curiosity a really strong working relationship building tool, it also gives you more information which will help with the problem-solving. It may well be the change that allows you to address the underlying problem rather than the presenting one. Really listen to their side of the story and let them know they have been heard and understood.
- Set out a clear purpose: if a conversation feels risky to the manager, it will be feeling risky to the other person. Find ‘something in it for them’ to talk – a mutual purpose.
- Share responses, assumptions and beliefs: recognise your version of events is composed of a mix of fact, fiction and assumptions, and try to separate what you know, what you believe, and what you are unsure of, before you open your mouth. A manager who shares their assumptions and versions of events with others, and be more clearly understood; mistakes or misunderstandings will be illuminated before they take hold and become ‘facts’; and people will be more motivated to commit to a manager who is open, honest and trustworthy in this way.
- Don’t make it just about them: it’s usually very easy to see how the other person has contributed to the current difficulties – something they said, or something they did. Harder to spot is our own contribution. Once we give up the belief that the other person is completely responsible, we can start to see how we’ve added to the confusion and miscommunication. Ask yourself, “how might I have contributed to this?” Talking about your contribution you immediately open up a dialogue because they won’t feel you’re there to attack them. This means they are more likely to hear you and engage with what you need to talk about.