Being able to have a difficult conversation is a critical leadership skill. There are many situations where a difficult conversation might be required, and being confident to dive into the discussion is important.
However, difficult conversations are… well… hard. They can be uncomfortable, confrontational and stressful. They involve raising topics which might make people angry or unhappy.
Often avoiding a hard conversation is much worse in the long run. That’s why in this article, I propose three questions to ask yourself if you’re struggling to summon the courage to tackle an issue when you know you should be.
Learn More: Is Passive Leadership Destroying Your Team’s Motivation?
What Types of Difficult Conversations Are There?
There are many different situations that may require a hard discussion with somebody. You might have noticed that one of your team members is performing poorly. Perhaps there is a behavioural issue in your team that needs to be fixed.
Sometimes, you might need to tell someone they didn’t get the pay rise or promotion they wanted. Or that you can’t send them on the training course that was promised.
Whatever the topic is, these conversations are difficult because there are high stakes for at least one of the people in the discussion. Leaders are often in the position where they need to be the ones to convey disappointing news or to hold people accountable for poor performance.
Learn More: 4 Reasons Why You Can’t Hold People Accountable.
3 Questions to Ask Yourself If You Are Avoiding a Difficult Conversation
When I’m struggling to build the motivation to engage in a hard conversation, I like to ask these questions to help prompt myself into action.
Try them out for yourself and see whether they help to get you moving too.
Q1. “If This Situation Was Resolved Months From Now, What Would It Look Like?”
Looking ahead to the future is a powerful technique that can help you to see your current situation differently. This is sometimes called “future retrospection” and it involves thinking of a desired future state as if it had already happened, and working backwards to develop the steps you need to get there.
Let’s take the example where your team member is behaving badly and disrupting the team. A desired future state might be that this person is now a productive and well-liked member of the team.
Now, if you map the steps backwards from that future, how might this situation occur?
In this example, there is a good chance that a difficult conversation would need to happen to achieve this outcome.
Focus on the positive future.
Let yourself feel the good emotions that come from having resolved the situation.
Then use those feelings from the potential future to propel yourself into action and walk through the right door.
Learn More: How Short Term Thinking Leads to Bad Leadership.
Q2. “If I Do Nothing, What Message Am I Sending to the People Around Me?”
Another powerful question I like to ask myself is about the message I am sending to the people around me. This might be to my team members, colleagues and my own manager.
When leaders avoid difficult conversations to address behaviour or performance issues, they send messages out into their workplace.
“Bad behaviour in the team is acceptable”
“Poor performance is OK in this team”
“I don’t know what to do to address the problem at hand”
“I’m scared to address the problem, even if this involves hurting other people in the team”.
As you can see, these messages can be quite damaging. Many of us like to avoid pain and discomfort. The messages that we send from our inaction are painful. To avoid them, the only way is to take action to fix the problem.
Taking action sends a completely different set of messages.
Q3. “What Would a Strong, Confident, Credible Leader Do In This Situation?”
The last question is one that really helps me to stand up and take action. It is another visualisation technique which involves putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. And these are the shoes of a strong, confident and credible leader.
We all want to be strong, confident and credible leaders. So we simply try to visualise what they would do in this situation. Usually, it isn’t very complicated – it just takes courage.
A strong, confident, credible leader would probably stand up and say “This situation is not acceptable” and take on that difficult conversation without delay.
So why can’t you do the same?
And guess what? After you’ve had the hard conversation you have done exactly what a strong, confident, credible leader would do.
That might just make you one of those leaders.
Avoiding difficult conversations is a recipe for disaster. If you’re struggling to take that next step, use these three questions to try and propel yourself into action.
And if you want more information about how to have difficult conversations confidently and effectively, you can also download the eBook below.
How do you encourage yourself to take on a difficult conversation? Share your knowledge and let us all know in the comments below!
To overcome procrastination on having a difficult conversation, I ask coachees to ask themselves three questions: 1. How will what I plan to say be helpful? 2. How might what I say be hurtful? 3. What would a win-win look like?
(I find that most of the conversations we regret are the ones we didn’t have.)
Great questions Pam – thanks for sharing!