Thursday 4 November 2010

Handling Challenging Conversations with Confidence

This article was originally published in the Nov 2010 edition Ignite Magazine, produced by the Ken Blanchard Companies, and has been reproduced in full from Whilst this article has a firm business focus, similar principles can be applied to difficult conversations within our personal lives.

Most managers feel some reluctance when faced with having challenging conversations, according to Eryn Kalish, mediator, conflict resolution expert, and co-author of The Ken Blanchard Companies' Challenging Conversations program.

When this happens, a manager will sometimes shut down or withdraw from a situation instead of confronting it directly. While this strategy may keep the lid on a situation in the short term, the long-term damage is usually substantial with drops in productivity and morale due to ongoing conflict and disagreement. Whether the topic is delivering a difficult message, giving tough performance feedback, or confronting insensitive behavior, managers need to step into the “uncomfortableness.”

“Many people have been taught to avoid or gloss over difficult issues,” explains Kalish.

“Sometimes they are afraid that if they have these conversations they will make the situation worse. So managers will often avoid confronting situations hoping that by suppressing or ignoring the ‘negative’ feelings and thoughts that they will somehow go away. But it rarely gets better on its own and pretty soon the entire team is breaking down and the problem is much larger.”

The result can be damaged relationships, stalled projects, or just employees without much passion for their work.

“If an issue becomes a crisis, decisions are then made with very incomplete information. So the wisdom gets lost because people are then so triggered that you’re dealing with the situation at a time when everybody is really overheated and really upset.”

The fast-paced demands of today’s workplace make it increasingly important for managers to be able to effectively address sensitive subjects in the workplace. That’s one of the reasons why Kalish believes it is important for managers to create a safe space for people to have those conversations and address suppressed issues.

A 5-Step Process for Managers
To help improve their skills in dealing with challenging conversations, Kalish teaches managers how to speak up without alienating the other person and how to listen even if they are “triggered” by what they are hearing.

The concepts are easily understandable, explains Kalish, but it is something that’s challenging emotionally to practice. For managers just getting started, there are five skills Kalish recommends as a way of feeling comfortable and being open to others' feelings.

1.Stating concerns directly.
Speak up in a way that doesn't alienate other people. Understand how to get at the essence of what's important.

2.Probing for more information to gain a deeper understanding. Learn how to get more information from someone who might be hesitant to talk. Learn how to gently, but firmly, probe and get somebody to speak out when it is going to serve them and the situation.

3.Engaging others through whole-hearted listening.
Be able to listen even when it is uncomfortable. Learn how to work with your reactions so that you can focus and understand what the other person is saying.

4.Attending to body language.
Pay attention to body language and be able to spot discrepancies between what you are hearing and what you are seeing. How many times have you been sitting in a meeting when somebody said everything was fine but his or her body language was saying that it is clearly not? Avoid the temptation to say, “Oh, good, everything is ok. Let's move on.”

5.Keeping forward focused, but only when everybody is ready to move forward.
This can be a challenge for managers with a natural and usually positive bias for action. Learn to resist the urge to move forward prematurely. In challenging conversations the real issues often don’t come to light at first, and they can seep out in unhealthy ways later on.

More Communication, Not Less
During uncertain times it is important to increase your support of people.

As Kalish explains, “How are we going to work with all of the challenges we face today if people are all bottled up and frozen in fear or anger, or feeling like they might lash out? We need people to be vibrant and enthusiastic. Let’s not lose that connection with others or that connection to our own vibrancy. We need it now to liberate the energy that we all want and need to be productive and successful.”

One of the greatest skills managers can have today is how to listen well—both to their own thoughts and instincts as well as to the other person in order to really understand his or her point of view and perspective.

For managers willing to step up to the challenge, the results can be far-reaching, including quicker resolution of performance issues, better work relationships, fewer grievances, reduced tension, and fewer corporate crises.

Even in the most difficult of times, people can work together with colleagues in a way that is transformational. Start today by looking at ways to increase the frequency and quality of the conversations that are occurring within your organization.