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Webinar report: Having difficult conversations

‘What’s to gain by avoiding a difficult conversation?’

In early May, our Positive Relationships series of webinars with Joanna Gaudoin from Inside Out Image continued.

In this session, the focus was on the potentially relationship-straining subject of difficult conversations.

With experience in marketing and consultancy in large corporates, Joanna understands the challenges of building great working relationships. In 2011, she established Inside Out Image, a consultancy firm specialising in skills that are rarely taught in formal educational settings. 

What subjects trigger difficult conversations?

To help us frame our approach to a difficult conversation, Joanna set out the six most common subjects around which they arise.

Unsurprisingly, the first one is money. Internal discussions over allocation of budgets can be tense at times. However, personal issues around remuneration are the ones many of us really struggle with.

This is closely related to goals. Aligning your career goals with those of your organisation can sometimes call for delicate conversations with your boss – and maybe other colleagues, too.

Then there are formal agreements. Once signed, they’re set in stone so making sure the clauses in them work for you, whether at a personal or organisational level, can be tricky.

Next up is deadlines. These invariably involve prioritising, which in turn can cause conflict between people whose objectives and resources vary. Being asked to bring things forward (or push them back) can lead to difficult conversations.

Discussions around yours or a colleague’s performance and personal development can also be sensitive – to all involved. This is especially true if an issue is ongoing and leads to multiple conversations over time.

Finally, career progression. Many of us find it hard to talk about our own goals and how we want our employers to help us reach them.

Responding to conflict

We all have a default conflict response mode. A good way to identify this is to evaluate our attributes in the context of what is known as the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. This focuses on four key impulses that help define whether we’re predominantly assertive or cooperative. The impulses are:

  • To avoid conflict – tempting for many but rarely a good idea unless external emotional pressures are in play;
  • To compete with others – this can be seen as being pushy and uninterested in other people’s views, but can be useful in situations where a stalemate arises and a lead needs to be taken;
  • To be accommodating – typically by raising issues and then allowing others with deeper knowledge of the subjects to make final decisions; and
  • To collaborate – where we feel we’re equally knowledgeable as others, so can discuss a subject on level terms.

Whatever your default conflict mode, always buy yourself time in a difficult conversation. Don’t respond to your first emotion. This may feel counter-intuitive in an age where we feel we must give an answer now but taking time to reflect dispassionately always pays.

On the other hand, don’t leave it too long. The consequences of avoiding difficult conversations can include resentment, wasted energy and the build-up of negative patterns that can recur in future conflicts.

How are the other people feeling?

Another key consideration in a difficult conversation is to try to gauge the characteristics of others. If you can identify whether someone is predominantly analytical, stable, dominant or inspiring, it’s often possible to determine if they’re task-focused or relationship-focused. This can help you assess whether their desired outcome is about getting the job done or establishing a particular dynamic in a one-to-one or group relationship.

Think too about how you may have contributed to the situation the conversation is about. Were you at fault? Did you overlook something – or somebody – important? Was the impact of that disproportionate to the intent you had?

Solving the problem

Of course, the aim of a difficult conversation is to solve a problem. Before you go into the conversation, sense check any assumptions you may have and prepare to be open-minded. 

Then, once in the conversation, Joanna’s 10 top tips are:

  1. Stay calm and talk from an objective point of view.
  2. Avoid presenting your views as facts.
  3. Focus on what matters most.
  4. Be aware of what you do – and do not – know.
  5. Ask open questions and listen carefully to the answers.
  6. Paraphrase what people say to get the best possible understanding.
  7. Always keep your desired outcome in mind.
  8. Acknowledge everyone’s feelings – yours as well as other people’s.
  9. Check and validate any assumptions you form during the conversation.
  10. If necessary, pause and postpone the conversation till later – and explain why.

Our next webinar in the Positive Relationships series with Joanna is Effective and productive meetings on 18 July. Learn more and register here.
In the meantime, sign up to Joanna’s short email series and downloadable booklet, The Nine Skills Needed for Career Success, you will find this on the website.

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