Would you enter a bike race without training for it? Or a 10K? Or a
boxing match? No. No you wouldn’t. Because you know it would be painful, and embarrassing and you would fail and people wouldn’t say “Good try!” They would say “For heaven’s sake what were you doing entering that competition without being prepared for it?” And yet people enter difficult conversations in business all the time without thinking that they need to practice communication.
What do I mean by “Practice Communication?” I mean when you’re having an issue with an employee or client or supplier and instead of engaging that person in a calm, objective conversation you just avoid it until it’s firing time. I see this a lot. Many people never learn how to have difficult conversations. They learn how to communicate from their parents when they’re five and assume that’s the way it’s done. It doesn’t really cross their minds that their employee, or whoever, also learned how to have a conversation when they were five from a completely different set of parents. And it doesn’t occur to either party, unless they’ve studied how to work through issues, that maybe there’s some nice, neutral way that tackles the issues with a minimum amount of maneuvering, manipulating, controlling or emoting.
When people don’t practice communicating, they don’t really know what’s going to come out of their mouths when difficult conversations crop up. That’s a problem. For example, if you’re accustomed to difficult conversations you might know that you have a tendency to want to play the angry controller role, when things get tough. Or the victim role. And you can manage that. If you’re unaccustomed to these conversations, things come flying out like “You’re being so mean,” which is okay on the playground, but not so much in a mature conversation between boss and employee or co-workers. If you haven’t practiced difficult conversations, what is likely to erupt from you in that moment of heightened tension is whatever coping skills you learned as a child.
Another thing you learn from difficult conversations is whether you’re the problem. Most people assume they’re not. Whether they’ve really mastered their family communication model or whether they’ve learned a thing or two about best practices, most people figure they’re doing it right and everyone else is doing it wrong. If you’re having difficult conversations and they rarely go well, you probably need to reassess.
Most people, when they’re really learning this skill, or when they face a particularly difficult situation, benefit from writing down what they want to say in the conversation. Start by having an agenda. And also consider how you’ll handle various responses. What if an employee says “I’m going to sue you!” upon being fired or threatens to take half the staff with them? What if they break down and start telling you how hard their life is? What if they turn the tables and start telling you everything that’s wrong with you? (And what if they’re right?) This stuff happens. And worse.
An organization that is open and accountable needs to be a place where Fierce Conversations are part of the culture and difficult topics are tackled with respect. In fact, having policies and discussions around how everyone is expected to handle tough conversations, disagreements and challenges is an important part of defining a strong culture. If you avoid those conversations, you can’t learn how to do it right. And neither can anyone else. Instead, everyone will resort to whatever they learned along the way. That can be really ugly.
Being good at communicating is hard work but being bad at it can undermine all your other goals for your organization. It can create morale problems, generate negative perceptions of your culture in the workplace and undermine performance and profitability. If the anger management person has to deal with the drama queen (of whatever gender), or they’re both feeling stressed by a passive-aggressive manager, you’re going to have a tempest that slows down everything else in the office. I’ve seen all this and worse. So practice, practice, practice! And if you need help, call us!
We work with companies on a project basis or on retainer, providing a custom level of HR help designed for your business, with offices in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. Contact me at Caroline@valentinehr.com or call (512) 420-8267.