18 Sep 2019

Difficult Conversations : What Makes them Difficult?

Our personal as well as professional lives are full of conversations. Rather, conversations that we have play a crucial role in shaping our lives; at personal as well as professional level. A simple activity like conversing with someone can serve multiple purposes; from arriving at new ideas to peacefully forgetting the paths which hit a roadblock. It won’t be slightest of an exaggeration if we say that the kind of conversations we have, define the kind of person we are.

Though we all believe that conversations play an important role  in our lives, not all conversations are what we would look forward to. In course of the work, individuals, especially managers, have to initiate and steer through a large number of conversations which are not ‘pleasant’. Because of a number of reasons, these conversations put the initiator as well as the receptor out of their comfort zones and hence, perceived as something to be avoided.

In reality, difficult conversations that are avoided are quite important, in the growth story of an individual or an organisation. Unfortunately, due to this sense of ‘difficulty’, they are often postponed or rushed through hurriedly without giving them due importance, time and attention. Managers sometimes avoid them because they are not equipped or skilled to have these conversations, and this can significantly impact the course of a company.

In this article, we have put together a list of conversations which are often labelled as ‘Difficult Conversations’ and the reasons why they are crucial. This list is compiled from our past programs on difficult conversations, where participants, mostly managers of mid-size and large teams, had shared about which conversations they find most difficult.

1. Performance related feedback:

Whether high performer or not, every team member deserves feedback from his/her manager. While robust performance management systems exist in most organisations, 1-on-1 performance conversations are often conspicuous by their absence. This is the most important piece of the performance management system, not just to provide feedback but to ensure alignment of members with the objectives of the team / organisation. Where performance feedback is offered, it more often than not, works as a pendulum – either the feedback is given starkly and harshly causing hurt or provided in a roundabout way thus missing the message. Often, managers are either not adept at being assertive in giving specific feedback or don’t see the benefits of being able to engage in such conversations.

2. High Performers with Discipline issues:

High performers are difficult to find and once they are on-board, managers try their best to retain them.  Most of the times, high performers are also aware of the fact that they deliver more than what is expected out of them. It becomes a complex issue when you have a high performer in the team who takes liberty to break some of the rules or work related disciplines which apply equally to all the employees. In such situations, managers hesitate to bring up these issues with the high performers fearing that they might leave the organisation. Such unexpected exits can sabotage ongoing important projects. If handled properly, such conversations can lead to better understanding between high performers and their managers.

3. Setting Stretched Goals:

Sometimes, situations demand that team members stretch a bit beyond comfort zone. It could be about learning a new skill, going to a new geography, or working extra hours to support a customer. It is difficult for a manager to set these goals and keep all team members motivated especially when some have stretched goals and others do not, because they are operating on a different part of the project. When the manager does not share a good rapport with team members, these conversations become difficult because of the stories in the managers mind about his/her team members.

4. Asking basic questions:

For anyone to perform, it is important to be clear about goals and the ways to achieve them. Senior team members often shy away from asking questions when a task or goal is assigned to them. They would rather find out from the internet or from a user manual than ask their manager.  Imagine, you have spent twenty years of your career in selling speciality chemicals. On account of your sales skills, you acquire a new position, which requires you to sell a different set of products, say adhesives. In such a situation, being at a senior position, it might be awkward for you to ask questions about the products which may seem elementary in nature, but are going to save a lot of time in terms of the learning curve. In fact, asking those questions may uncover some more tacit knowledge or history about customers that is available with the manager. Junior team members also hesitate to ask questions, rejecting them in their mind as ‘silly’ questions. Sensing this, and encouraging juniors to ask questions, answering basic queries, could lead to a culture of conversation and learning.

5. Appreciation:

Appreciation, in reality, the act of acknowledging or praising a colleague. The reasons could be several – either for providing excellent support, spotting a flaw in the system, customer orientation, fixing a defect, or outstanding performance.  In spite of that, managers might find it difficult to appreciate a team mate anticipating that it would trigger expectations and aspirations, or demotivate those who are not appreciated. Some managers expect continuous improvement to be part of the job, and do not think this requires a special word. But, a large number of managers find it very difficult to appreciate their team members, because they are awkward and embarrassed to do so, or may not know a structured way to appreciate people regularly.

6. Cross functional dialogues:

Most companies need cross-functional efforts to successfully ideate, build and sell products, that too in a stipulated timeline. Cross functional team (CFT) meetings serve as the junction for problem solving and innovation.  However, such meetings are often the breeding grounds for unproductive conflict. They are most likely to turn into battlegrounds where each team keeps blaming the others. The person/department is identified and not the root cause. If steered properly, these meetings can turn into an excellent avenue for cross-functional learning and development.

7. Exit interviews:

When an employee decides to leave the organisation, whose fault is it? The manager? Or the employee? Or the company policies? Because of all these negative notions associated with them, exit interviews are considered the toughest dialogues managers and HR team members have to initiate. If conducted properly, exit interviews can generate a wealth of information about employee experience and how to enhance that further.

In this article, we have tried putting together different conversations which are often perceived to be difficult.  There are tools, techniques and structures which can reduce the difficulty levels in these conversations. Practicing these in a workshop or training program, can give managers the confidence to grow their interpersonal effectiveness.

Rahul Chaudhari

About Rahul Chaudhari

Rahul is the co-founder at Element78 and he focuses on bringing in sustained and tangible transformation to client’s talent and hence its business performance. Rahul has played a pivotal role in customizing and delivering solutions for large and mid-sized clients based on their development needs. He has handled several strategic client initiatives and helped them manage sales and business growth. Rahul has serviced several key clients, across manufacturing and services sectors, in the areas of leadership excellence, trainer development and sales effectiveness. Prior to co-founding Element78, Rahul has had over 20 years of experience in management consulting, industrial sales and learning & development verticals, working with several leading firms such as Dale Carnegie Training, Tata Economic Consultancy Services, A. F. Ferguson & Co. and KSA-Technopak.  Rahul is trained and certified for his professional abilities at IIMB (Management Consulting), Kathalaya (story-telling), and ISABS (Organizational Development). Rahul can be reached at rahul@element78.in
Rahul Chaudhari

rahulelement78-in

Rahul is the co-founder at Element78 and he focuses on bringing in sustained and tangible transformation to client’s talent and hence its business performance. Rahul has played a pivotal role in customizing and delivering solutions for large and mid-sized clients based on their development needs. He has handled several strategic client initiatives and helped them manage sales and business growth. Rahul has serviced several key clients, across manufacturing and services sectors, in the areas of leadership excellence, trainer development and sales effectiveness. Prior to co-founding Element78, Rahul has had over 20 years of experience in management consulting, industrial sales and learning & development verticals, working with several leading firms such as Dale Carnegie Training, Tata Economic Consultancy Services, A. F. Ferguson & Co. and KSA-Technopak.  Rahul is trained and certified for his professional abilities at IIMB (Management Consulting), Kathalaya (story-telling), and ISABS (Organizational Development). Rahul can be reached at rahul@element78.in

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