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Mastering difficult conversations

The art of having a difficult conversation is not something that necessarily fits within the Kiwi culture.

People in other countries seem to do this far better than us; an opinion can be given, a thought shared, a situation addressed, without any offence being taken. Some cultures even view a public disagreement as a sign of a strong relationship. Not so the passive aggressive Kiwi.

Conflict can be obvious (an argument) or less visible (ignoring). Both forms are difficult to manage. But difficult conversations are an integral part of any person’s role, especially that of a leader or manager, whether communicating a project delay to a client or addressing poor performance with a team member.

We all end up dealing with tricky scenarios, people we find blatantly difficult or people we simply don’t like. Right now, you’re probably even thinking of a person who has been a challenge to deal with. As people practitioners, we often see greater damage done when conflict is avoided rather than addressed.

Simply put, there are going to be times when we need to address conflict. So, if we must do it, we might as well do it as best we can. Here are some top tips for handling difficult conversations:

  1. It’s not all bad

    The first step is to not see conflict as necessarily “bad”. Conflict is natural and healthy. It doesn’t mean we have to like these conversations, but we can get better at having them. The question should be what approach we want to employ in our management and leadership practice to address the conflict, as opposed to how we get rid of it. Having good conversations and resolving conflict well will deepen workplace connections, allow us to talk about what matters and keep us (ourselves, our teams and the whole organisation) moving forward.

  2. Talk it out

    A hallmark of high performing teams is that they all experience some level of conflict. Lively debates and discussions of controversial topics feature regularly. Well known motivational speaker and ethnographer, Simon Sinek, recently shared an interesting view on the increasing requirement for conversation and conflict training as ‘Generation Z’ enters our workplaces. He sees that members of this generation have limited conversational confidence due to social media communications being their norm. The idea of picking up a phone or having a face-to-face discussion is a foreign concept: many would do anything to avoid an in-person chat. These people are our next group of leaders, which begs the question, how will they handle conflict in their workplaces?

  3. Different horses for different courses

    Thomas and Kilman (1974) developed five widely accepted styles of resolving conflict – Avoiding, Accommodating, Compromising, Collaborating and Competing. We all have a preference and a natural style, but it is useful to think that at different times, different approaches will be beneficial. This will depend on two things: (a) the goal; and (b) the relationship. If I have a specific goal to achieve and relationships are not important, then to compete at times can be appropriate (this works well for lawyers for example). Where there is a deep and meaningful relationship, then to compromise or accommodate at times is more appropriate (this might be with a key manager or staff member, a teenager or even a spouse) and where the issue is trivial, then avoidance may be the best option.

  4. Pause & hold

    In heated conversations or conflict, the initial response is flight or fight (or even freeze). This is a natural response where stress comes into the body, adrenaline pumps and cortisol floods the system, leading to a heightened state of anxiety. As a result, we are less inclined to think accurately or be our best self. To pause and take a couple of breaths in the first instance is our best strategy. Even six seconds will allow your limbic system to return to a variation of normal and let you to think more accurately about the scenario.

  5. Take Two: Try these two Strategies

    In her Ted Talk and book (titled Changing the Conversation), Dana Caspersen discusses two critical concepts to consider when in conflict:

    • Don’t hear attack
    • Develop curiosity

    Both are connected. The first requires a practice of looking beyond the attack words, separating out the person from the behavior and listening carefully to what the person is really trying to say.

    To do this, we need the second concept; curiosity. Ask questions like “If I wasn’t hearing an attack right now, what would I be hearing?” or “If I said this without attack, what would it sound like?”. Robust curiosity, and curiosity with an intent to understand in the middle of a difficult situation, takes skill and practice. It’s pressing the pause button to ask, “what is going on here; what have I not yet noticed?

  6. Plan to succeed

    For particularly tough conversations, give some thought and preparation prior, but don’t script. Four quick tips:

    • Focus on one issue at a time
    • Focus on being timely
    • Focus on observable actions or behaviours
    • Focus on a plan to change the behaviour

    With the right practice and applying a high degree of curiosity to our conversations, any of us can improve the quality of our conversations, feedback and conflict management. The power of doing this well and the potential it offers to our relationships and workplaces will have a ripple effect that will only be positive in the long term.

DISCLAIMER No liability is assumed by Baker Tilly Staples Rodway for any losses suffered by any person relying directly or indirectly upon any article within this website. It is recommended that you consult your advisor before acting on this information.

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