How is it that what sets out as a seemingly helpful conversation can suddenly spiral into something far more difficult than anticipated? This is something we tossed around in a Coaching Skills for Managers course I was facilitating last week.
It stemmed from a discussion we were having about adding value, and in particular how to go about having more powerful coaching conversations in order to be more effective at work. In this instance a delegate was wrestling with the concept of not immediately acceding to what his senior manager wanted and instead steering the conversation towards what might be best for the business. Well no issue there surely. They should be one and the same thing no? Well we all know in the real world that it’s not always as simple as that; and therein lies the potential for a seemingly innocent conversation to very quickly derail, for feelings to get hurt and worse still relationships to unravel.
When we reflected in the round afterwards the general conclusion was that it all boiled down to intention. If my intentions are good e.g. helping the business achieve its targets then there is no issue and my stakeholder should be able to see this right? The problem with this according to Stone in his book Difficult Conversations is that more often than not intentions are invisible; not only that but we assume them from people’s behaviour and the stories we invent around these intentions are far less accurate than we think.
So how do we get around this if we need to have a tricky conversation? Three things in my experience can help. Firstly I agree it is important to be clear on our intentions and make them explicit, but more importantly we need to think through the potential impact of the conversation on the other party. For example how might they receive what we say, how might it make them feel and what might it cause them to question about themselves. Armed with this information we are in a better position to make decisions about such matters as when and where to have that conversation.
The third and possibly most important factor to consider in my book however is about our own openness to learn and in particular our willingness to have a two-way conversation about our intentions and their impact. Intentions are complex things and despite what we might like to think we are not always being selfless or benevolent when we embark on a difficult conversation! Thus it seems to me that only when we practice all three of these things can we start to forge strong and enduring relationships.
As always when I work with a group I catch myself wryly smiling at the parallel process that, as if by magic appears in the mix, and this group was no exception. So my thanks goes out to this particular cohort for the timely reminder to be clear on my intentions when setting up a particular coaching exercise and to always being present to the anxiety that can show up when we make ourselves vulnerable in our desire to learn….a win-win you might say!
What do you consider important when having difficult conversations?