How to have a courageous conversation

Handling a difficult conversation can keep some people awake Gary Wyles provides ideas on how to handle those tricky discussions

We can all be kept awake at night by the thought of an issue that needs to be addressed with a colleague or delivering bad news to the team. We worry about what could go wrong. We wrangle over how the conversation will be received.

We rarely think about the opportunities that these conversations could present. Instead of dwelling on the negative aspects, we need to reframe these conversations as courageous conversations. To do this effectively, we need to change the culture of our organisations to be one of positive challenge.

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Handling a difficult one-off conversation might indeed keep us awake. But what if all of our conversations became challenging? What if we were able to be courageous in the actual moment? What if our organisations were transparent enough so that when difficult decisions needed to be made, such as redundancy or relocation, our employees were actively involved and empowered to forge a new and different future for themselves.

A coaching culture
Coaching is central to having courageous conversations and creating a challenge culture. The first step to training managers as coaches is self-reflection. It’s about the awareness that to change the behaviour of others, we first need to change our own behaviour.
This can be a blind spot for many managers and leaders. Daniel Eisenberg in his book The Softer Side termed this ‘CEO disease’, where managers and leaders have little recognition of how their own behaviour affects their people.

Once managers are able to reflect upon their own behaviour, they will be more open to objectively and compassionately viewing the behaviour of others. If the performance of a team member takes a sudden downturn, it’s important to understand what could have contributed to a dip, aside from personal circumstances. A change in the business environment is one of the most common causes of an altering of behaviour or performance in the workplace. There tend to be five common reactions to change:
•       Fear of the unknown/surprise
•       Climate of mistrust (bad history)
•       No personal reward to change
•       Loss of job security or control
•       Fear of failure.

Perhaps they’re finding it difficult to manage their workload. It could be that their confidence and self-esteem has taken a knock. When a manager seeks to understand and questions sensitively, they will be open to an honest answer about what’s troubling their team member.

Performance issues could be as simple as clashes of personality. Psychologists refer to the fact that personality is static; that we are who we are. This does not preclude us from altering our responses to specific situations. However, when placed under stress, our ability to proactively manage our own personality is reduced, and often we can revert to our innate traits and characteristics.

Using a personality assessment tool, such as DiSC, provides a common language that people can use to better understand themselves and their team. For managers, it can be helpful in understanding other people’s reactions as well as adapting their own behaviour and interactions with their team.

Addressing the issue
All too often when we are facing difficult conversations we talk around the issue. Part of having a courageous conversation is the ability to carefully lay out the stark reality of the situation, while avoiding the blame game. Of course, managers need to be fully aware of all the relevant policies and procedures and HR need to ensure their managers are skilled enough to handle these discussions. Training departments can help managers to take a step back and to really think and discuss how the conversation will best be handled.
We have to recognise that it’s natural to be concerned about what we’ll be facing. But most important is to have real care and concern for the emotional well being of the team. Placing employee’s interests at the heart of the conversation will be the first step in engendering their trust to open up and discuss the issue. Managers then will be able to listen, hear and understand their concerns, even if it involves direct criticism of a particular manager’s style.

It is also worth recognising that a single conversation will be unlikely to have the desired effect. During the conversation a plan of action needs to be discussed and agreed upon. This is not about asking “So what are you going to do to change?”It’s about working together to come to a resolution.

A further way of earning people’s trust is by doing what has been put in place. Equally, ensuring employees do that they’ve committed to will earn their respect.

Courageous conversations as part of a coaching culture are beneficial to all parties. Instead of focussing on fixing things or blaming others, a manager can focus on doing what’s right for their people, for themselves and for the organisation as a whole.


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