Leaders often tell me (or send me) stories of conflict and frustration from their workplaces. They usually involve bad behaviour, work not being completed or simply situations where people aren’t doing what they are supposed to be doing.
The stories relate to various levels from direct reports, to peers or the leader’s own boss.
What strikes me about many of these situations is that people are often skirting around the issue. People are upset, frustrated and annoyed, but often aren’t talking about the problem directly.
Sometimes I catch myself thinking: “Why don’t they just have a direct conversation about this?”
Of course, I understand that a direct conversation can be confronting and I’m not the most direct person myself.
However, when we let issues linger they can grow into larger problems, resentment can build and trust may be damaged.
In this post, I’ll take a look at some of the factors you should consider when trying to decide whether you should have a more direct conversation about an issue, rather than continue to work around it.
What Are the Benefits of a Direct Conversation?
Sometimes I think our workplaces would be a lot more effective if we communicated more directly with each other.
When I say direct, I mean that we would communicate what we are thinking, what the issues are and any problems we may have with another person’s behaviour or attitude.
Instead of hoping the other person picks up on the social cues we are giving out, we let them know our position more directly. Instead of hoping they notice how badly they’re behaving, we let them know what impact they are having.
In my view, there are several potential benefits to this:
- We speed up resolution of issues. The sooner we talk about the problems, the quicker we can work on them.
- People know where we stand. Instead of hoping people ask us what we think… we tell them. There is less possibility of confusion this way.
- We raise awareness. Some people will bumble through the workplace without any idea of the impact they are having on others. A direct conversation can provide opportunities to raise awareness instead of enabling people to drift along.
Of course, direct conversations can be uncomfortable. Instead of being nice and friendly, you are potentially raising topics that are sensitive or confronting.
It’s hard to cross that discomfort barrier – but when there are challenges to be overcome, it might be worth making the effort.
What Do You Mean By a Direct Conversation?
For the sake of clarity, let’s clear up what I mean by a direct conversation.
To me, it means directly stating what is on your mind, or what you have observed that is not working for you.
Here are a couple of examples:
- Pointing out poor or unproductive behaviour. “Yesterday in the meeting I noticed that you rolled your eyes a few times and it was a concern for me. What’s on your mind?”
- Calling out dysfunctional patterns. “Each time you contact my team, you give us less than a day’s notice to start working on your project, which can be quite frustrating for me and the team. What’s stopping you from giving us an earlier heads-up?”
- Talking about attitudes. “Lately I’ve noticed that you are checking in on me more often than usual. Is there anything you’re concerned about that I should be aware of?”
Of course, if you engage in a direct conversation, people might tell you some things that make you uncomfortable.
But is it better to be blissfully ignorant? Or to know what’s going on so you can potentially improve the situation?
Direct conversations can have an uncanny knack of letting people know that you have noticed something, and opening up a communication channel which has so far been avoided.
A Checklist For Having a Direct Conversation
Below are some items to check before you have that direct conversation.
Some of you might be thinking this isn’t needed. You should just go ahead and say what’s on your mind.
However, not all leaders have personality types that are so forward.
So this is a way to help the thoughtful leaders out there decide whether they should try to summon the courage to have a direct conversation.
✅ There Is No Obvious Point Where This Issue Will Cease
Sometimes it’s pointless having a direct conversation when there is a light at the end of the tunnel. That is, a time when you know that the situation will have been resolved or will improve for some reason.
For example, perhaps someone is leaving the organisation, or a project is ending.
When there is a point in the near future when you believe the conversation will no longer be needed, you may be able to put up with the situation for a short while.
Note that this only applies when you know something is changing. If you are simply *hoping* for change, that’s not good enough!
✅ The Softer Approach Didn’t Work
Sometimes leaders work around the problem, rather than tackling it directly.
However, it’s not always good to go in all guns blazing with a direct conversation as the first course of action. Sometimes, a softer approach can encourage people to make a change.
A softer approach might mean providing support, making an effort to be more collaborative or setting clear expectations about what you need from the person.
These approaches provide the opportunity for the situation to improve without having to test the relationship too much. But if you’re not seeing an improvement, it might be time to attack the situation more directly.
This might mean directly calling out unproductive behaviour, or having a conversation about the reasons why you’re not getting what you need.
✅ You Have Built Some Rapport With the Other Person
Good relationships are built on rapport. Rapport refers to whether two people get along with and respect each other.
When you have a strong rapport with someone, you are more likely to be able to have a challenging conversation without causing lasting damage. Without rapport, you may go past the point of no return!
It’s useful to think of rapport like a bank account. You do things over time to build rapport, like being helpful, credible, friendly or showing an interest in the other person.
That bank balance will build up, and one day you might need to spend some of the cash in there. You spend rapport by asking for a favour, disagreeing with someone or having a direct conversation.
But if you have a positive rapport bank balance, your relationship will likely survive a direct conversation. Without it, the other person may not even choose to engage.
So have you spent some effort to build rapport with the other person? You never know, this might be part of the cause behind your issues in the first place.
✅ The Potential Positive Outcomes Are Sufficiently Compelling
What are you hoping to gain out of the direct conversation? What could a positive outcome be?
If your only aim is to “let them have it”, then it possibly isn’t the best option.
But if you can see the possibility of positive change, then this will help you to engage in the conversation.
Another way to frame this is to ask:
“What is the positive outcome I would like for the other person?”
This gets you thinking with a more positive mindset, focused on the other person’s needs instead of just your own.
✅ This Issue Is Impacting People In My Team
If you are the only one being impacted by this situation, sometimes it may be OK to stay silent.
However, when your team are impacted and unable to perform effectively because of what’s going on, this is when a direct conversation may become more important.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t look after your own needs. But I do find that some thoughtful leaders need a push.
And that push is often when they realise that the team is being impacted, too. To be a supportive leader, the only thing to do is take action.
✅ This Issue Is Highly Visible In the Workplace
Credibility matters in leadership.
If people in your workplace are noticing this situation, they’re also probably noticing that you aren’t doing anything about it.
The more public the issue is, the more likely it is that other people are watching to see what you do. Doing nothing is likely to be a hit to your reputation and leadership credibility.
✅ If This Issue Was Still Happening a Few Months From Now, It Would Not Be Acceptable
Let’s take a look into the future.
Imagine yourself a few months from now, in the same situation.
Would that be acceptable to you? What do you think a great leader would say if they saw you in the same situation in a few months time?
And what would “future you” say to yourself if you hadn’t done anything right now? They’d probably be pretty disappointed.
But that’s OK – because you can do something today and change that future.
What Will You Decide?
If you ticked a lot of boxes, chances are that you should consider having that direct conversation.
It won’t be easy, but hopefully you have come to the conclusion that doing nothing will be worse. This will provide the motivation to keep pushing ahead through the potential discomfort.
What are you waiting for?
A better future could be a conversation away!
How do you decide whether you should have a direct conversation? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!