How to Have Tough Talks at Work

In my last article about gossip in the workplace, I touched on the concept of hard conversations and how it was easier to gossip about something than to have the difficult—and often scary—talks that deal with the actual issue. Sadly, the former is much more common than the latter; people are uncomfortable about the possibility of confrontation or putting themselves too far out on a limb. Why is it so difficult to tell the truth? Because people are scared to be that vulnerable. Telling the truth is extremely powerful. It both requires and builds self-confidence; it clears things up so you can move on to more significant accomplishments. At their most basic level, telling the truth and having the hard conversations are real leadership; doing so shows courage and authenticity. What is the alternative? Hiding, shutting up, gossiping, being a chicken…not very powerful choices. Speaking up is better than not, so why don't we do it? It usually has to do with fear of some sort. Fear of getting in trouble, of being exposed, of ridicule, of the unknown, of asserting yourself, of being wrong, or of having to deal with something now that you've called it out. Fear of hurting someone. What is your justification for not telling the truth? What are you afraid of? Some people naturally have the hard conversations on a regular basis; those who do are born leaders. It's not something they decide to do; for them, there is no alternative. However, for most of us, deciding to have these conversations and speak the truth needs to be a conscious choice. First, you must decide. Will you? Benefits Outweigh the RisksLet me start by telling you about the benefits—and trust me, they outweigh the risks. First, you will feel better about yourself. A conversation you want—even need—to have, but don't or can't, wears you down. Second, such a conversation is good for the company. If people are spending time gossiping about something, the company would be better off addressing it head-on so it can get sorted out and people can get back to work in an atmosphere of knowledge and trust. Finally, if you have the tough conversations, people will see you as a leader. If you are willing to have the hard conversations and do so with conviction and grace, it will create an opening for others to do the same. Creating the atmosphere for honesty and communication to thrive is an important aspect of refining a company culture and one that the Handel Group almost always gets asked to do. There's really an art to having hard conversations. The first principle is to frame it with what's really there for you: "I'm nervous to tell you something because I don't want to offend you and I don't want you to hear or take it the wrong way." Or maybe it's "I am worried I will hurt your feelings," or "I want to know something and I'm afraid to ask because you'll think it's none of my business." Using one of these tactics is not manipulation of the conversation provided what you say is true; it is just a way to set a framework or context for the discussion to go well. Another way you can ease into a potentially difficult conversation is to get permission: Ascertain that the other person is all right with you being so blunt. "Are you O.K. with me saying what I think about this?" "Do you want me to tell you what's really going on?" "Can I be totally straight with you?" These are all good openers for a difficult conversation. Relationship-BuildingWe have rarely found that when people follow these principles, a person won't be open to the conversation. If you happen to find one who doesn't want to have that conversation, then leave it be, knowing that you were the brave one. Another way to create relationships where anything can be said is by telling on yourself first. "I've been working on myself and I know I can be harsh from time to time. And given that you've been around me for many years, I wonder if there is anything else I need to apologize to you for?" You make someone safe when you own your faults and/or mistakes. It is a heroic act when you take responsibility for your "less than desirable" behaviors or personality traits and apologize for them. It allows others to do the same. Even if the conversation doesn't go perfectly, I guarantee it is an improvement over being a chicken and saying or doing nothing. It takes one person to change the status quo and lead the way, because what we are really after here is creating a network of people who not only have permission but also encourage each other to tell the truth. That is what we get hired to create in companies, and let me tell you, it does wonders for improving the quality of life for those who partake. That quality of life translates to better communication, a more efficient and creative working environment, and happy employees, all of which have an indirect but significant impact on a company's bottom line. What conversations are you afraid to have? Start with just one. I guarantee that having even one will make it easier to have another. Will you feel worse by having it? The chances of your having a successful one will be much greater if you follow the principles I suggested. If it doesn't go well, it won't be because you haven't tried.

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