How can I help my leaders tackle difficult conversations?

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Difficult conversation

Some leaders actively avoid having difficult conversations, while others positively embrace them. Personally, I’m in the latter group, since I think real change can only happen if we really tackle what’s causing chaos.

In any leadership role, difficult conversations are both inevitable and necessary. Without difficult face-to-face conversations, we’ll never get to the root cause of issues, communicate effectively, or move forward. Leaders might need to address performance issues or certain negative behaviours. It could be they have to share bad news like impending redundancies. These discussions all require an element of tact, empathy, listening and clarity.

The goal of a great discussion isn’t to land on the same page. It’s to explore different views. Nods and smiles stroke your ego and close your mind. Thoughtful questions stoke your curiosity and stretch your thinking. Consensus makes you comfortable. Dissent makes you smarter.

Adam Grant

Here are three ways you can help:

1. Coaching conversations
If you’re in a communications role, you can help leaders navigate stormy waters through coaching conversations. Ask them what’s stopping them from having tricky discussions; why are they sweeping things under the carpet? What’s important is to frame questions in a way that uses their language.

If the issue is around behaviour and leaders don’t want to address it, you may find they highlight some positives – especially about a person’s performance. This is where you can introduce some of the values, the purpose, the behaviours that the organisation is held to account for to highlight behaviour that doesn’t reflect those values.

2. Facilitated conversations
Difficult conversations could also be about a change of direction for the business. This would necessitate facilitated conversations. We need to make sure that the people having those conversations with leaders to help them lean into difficult conversations are people they would listen to.

3. Tap into influencers
We all must be aware, especially in communications, of where our influence lies and where those relationships are. Sometimes there are leaders who won’t listen to you. In this case, it’s a good idea to use your internal network; have that conversation with someone that they would listen to and ask them to talk to the leader. This is about being self-aware. If you’re not the right influencer, using your network to facilitate the conversations is a great way to enable you to have some success.

If the issue is around behaviour and leaders don’t want to address it, you may find they highlight some positives – especially about a person’s performance. This is where you can introduce some of the values, the purpose, the behaviours that the organisation is held to account for to highlight behaviour that doesn’t reflect those values.

Further resources

If you’d like to know more, this Calm Edged Rebels podcast, where I discuss how to have difficult conversations with co-hosts Advita Patel and Trudy Lewis is useful. We use real-life examples to illustrate that there are ways to learn how to navigate and deal with such dialogue in a way to enhance your life. You can also read this short blog with more top tips about how to have a difficult conversation.

As part of our Reality Check research into the issues and chaos affecting their organisations and teams, we gave respondents the opportunity to ask us anything. This was a question posed by one of the respondents, which I answered personally. We will be sharing more of these throughout the year. If you have any further questions on this topic, please get in touch.

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