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How to Have Difficult Conversations

How to Have Difficult Conversations

From the bestselling author of Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work, Paul L. Marciano, reveals how to change your mindset and have difficult conversations.

Over my 30-year career, I have come to believe that much of the conflict in the workplace (and world) could be resolved or prevented altogether if people were skilled at having straightforward conversations around emotionally charged issues. Dysfunctional relationships – both personal and professional – are largely caused or exacerbated by people’s unwillingness to have critical conversations and/or lack of skill in doing so. Let’s face it, in general, the way we deal with what we perceive will be a “difficult” conversation is, quite simply, we don’t.

There are many situations at work that we commonly avoid discussing, including confronting a co-worker who took credit for our work or is rumored to have disparaged us in some way, addressing a performance issue with a direct report, holding a colleague accountable for keeping his commitments, or dealing with an unreasonable and irate customer. Of course, avoiding such conversations has many consequences, not the least of which is often making a situation worse. Unlike Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, closing your eyes and clicking your heels three times doesn’t get you where you want to go – it keeps you stuck where you are.

Changing your mindset

It is critical to recognize that conversations are not inherently good or bad, easy or difficult. Rather, like everything else in our lives, they are how we label them to be. If we say that a conversation will be difficult, well, then it is going to be difficult. If we say our boss is a jerk or co-worker ignorant, well, that is the way they are. If we say a thing is hard, then you better bet it is going to be hard! Think about a time when you just knew a conversation would turn confrontational. Can you see how what you said and acted aligned with that belief and doomed the discussion from the start? So, a critical first step in having a productive conversation is to change your mindset from – “Danger, danger Will Robinson” (if you’re unfamiliar with this quote, Google it for fun) – to “I am going to have an important conversation and choose to remain calm and present.”

Your view is a view – not the view

Often, we believe that we view the world objectively. Nothing could be further from the truth. I would like for you to imagine a pot in front of you into which you place your age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, education, socioeconomic status, citizenship, whether you are a parent or sibling, religious affiliation, country of origin, and where you grew up. Add to that pot all your life experiences and personality characteristics. Reach in, pull out a pair of glasses, and you will see that your lens is as unique as your thumbprint. No one sees the world as you do, and you do not see the world as anyone else does. Your view is “your” view and no more “wrong” or “right” than that of anyone else’s.

Be profoundly curious

One of the biggest reasons that conversations turn confrontational is because people actually have no interest in listening to the other person. We know what they are going to say, we know they are wrong, and we are far too pre-occupied waiting for our turn to prove them so. In any emotionally charged conversation, it is absolutely critical that you seek to understand the other person’s perspective and you can only do that by sincerely listening. The key to active listening is to become profoundly curious about what the other person has to say. This will completely alter your listening and the other person’s experience of being heard. And there is a chance that your curiosity will pique theirs. The next time you find yourself thinking, I already know what she is going to say, consciously switch that thought to, I have no idea what she is going to say, and I am incredibly curious to find out.

So, what is a conversation you are avoiding? What is keeping you from having that conversation and what is the relationship cost? Change your mindset, reach out to the person and say, “Let’s talk about it.”

To read more from the author, check out his new book, Let’s Talk About It.
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How to Have Difficult Conversations

Paul Marciano, PhD, is a leading authority on employee engagement and respect in the workplace. He earned his doctorate in clinical psychology from Yale University and has worked in the field of human resources for over 30 years. He is the president of the human relations consulting firm Whiteboard, LLC, a company committed to helping organizations cultivate, manage, and grow their human capital through targeted behavioral solutions based on the RESPECT Model™. Marciano is the author of Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work, a bestseller that has received critical acclaim around the world and been translated into several languages.