Uncomfortable conversations – a challenge and an opportunity

22 Feb 2016

Conversations can be uncomfortable for many reasons and I come across a wide selection in my work with managers and also my personal life. Many of the issues are common, the context is different.

Maybe we should talk

• Challenging why a promised promotion hasn’t come to fruition
• Requesting a daily rate increase from a key client
• Hearing a friend telling me his wife has cancer
• Challenging a coaching client to own up to and take responsibility for his actions
• Asking for a referral / recommendation
• Mentioning the unmentionable – ‘naming the elephant in the room’
• Speaking to an uncooperative service provider
• Negotiating a car deal to achieve my terms
• Discussing under-performance with an administrator
• Challenging someone being rude
• Talking to a colleague about a major issue she was having with a friend of mine

The need to have uncomfortable conversations is inevitable.  People have different values, perceptions, experience, agendas.  These differences often drive the parties involved to take an ‘us against them’ attitude.  We all tend to resist discomfort.

It’s not always the case that both parties find the conversation uncomfortable; sometimes it’s just one person. They feel on the receiving end of criticism; the feel misunderstood, got at; they feel guilty for not doing what they said-and are not ‘found out’;.

What we fear doing is most usually what we need to do. As I have heard said, a person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.” Tim Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Work Week

Many times, these conversations are uncomfortable because they remind and re-stimulate those involved of previous unpleasant circumstances.

Avoiding uncomfortable conversations achieves little other than reinforcing the current situation; current under-performance; current unacceptable attitudes etc.  Facing up to the discomfort of the interaction takes courage and this pays off when the intervention opens up opportunities to resolve issues, disagreements, misunderstandings and resolves under-performance and team conflict.

What does having uncomfortable conversations take ?
Courage, guts, skills, tenacity, diplomacy, backbone, empathy, compassion and more…

What does having uncomfortable conversations  ‘enable’ ?
Understanding of different perspectives, clarity, change, awareness, mentioning the unmentionable, honesty, difference to emerge, resolution, agreement, co-creating the  way forward

In a culture where so many people are risk-averse and conflict averse, many managers spend time and energy avoiding these conversations and in doing so, are busy ‘making stuff up’.  For example, a manager notices that one of his employee regularly commit to action but fails to take action or to take action ‘on time’.  Without speaking to the employee, managers assume (make up) that the employee hasn’t had a chance, are over-whelmed with other demands, likely had other priorities.  Irrespective of the impact in the business and on the team, managers who do this are behaving in a well-intentioned yet ineffective and unnecessarily over-protective way.

They’re uncomfortable because we spend time avoiding them; we project all sorts of negative assumptions about ourselves and others and what ‘might happen’; we engage with our emotional brain, rather than using our rational thinking to improve the situation.

Toyota, world renowned for application of Root Cause Analysis, PDCA and the Toyota Problem Solving Method Approach, applies a principle called Genchi  Genbutsu, which means ‘go to the source’  and in practice means  ‘speak to the person at the centre of the issue’, ‘ go to where the problem is occurring’.  This ‘seeing it with your own eyes’ takes effort and demands courage.  Having uncomfortable conversations is much easier if you’ve applied this principle.  It brings rigour, facts and evidence to what otherwise can be an emotional situation.

We somehow need to reframe how we think about uncomfortable conversations.  Our inner dialogue (other times called our Top Dog, Gremlin, Inner Critic, Crazy-Maker) is the voice in your head that nags away with negative warnings such as  ‘it’ll be awful; you’ll probably get into a horrid disagreement’; ‘you’ll embarrass yourself and them’ .

Reframing our thinking to thoughts such as ‘this will allow us to really sort out the situation’  ‘ I can find out exactly why they haven’t do the task and sort out how it will get done’  ‘asking for that promotion will open up dialogue with my manager and help me understand what I need to do to attain that promotion’  ‘speaking to her will help us both get to the root cause of what’s going on – then we can work together to resolve it, one way or another’.

Reframing in this way shifts what we previously thought of as an uncomfortable conversation to a challenging conversation or even a clarifying conversation and eventually to a valuable conversation.

Final thought: 3 Questions for Change

* What is one uncomfortable conversation you know you need to have ?

* What progress will having that conversation make possilbe ?

* What won’t change if you don’t have the conversation ?

Uncomfortable conversations demand that we and others ‘step up’; they test us; they put us right out of our comfort zones and in doing so, give us a chance to improve our skills, increase our confidence and resolve issues that would otherwise continue under the radar.

Handling these conversations may not become easy to conduct over night, but they will get easier with preparation, practice and a good structure.

In stepping up like this, in a compassionate way, we lead by example; we show others our true values; our courage; our human-ness. This is one way we generate willing followership.

Food for thought.

In one of my future blog posts I’ll write about steps you can take to structure uncomfortable conversations.

Until then, let’s all keep flourishing.


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