Leaders Embrace Difficult Conversations

… Not because they’re fun, but because those conversations are the incubator of change and growth.  

Lately, I’ve noticed a theme among my coaching clients. I’m not sure if there’s something in the water or it’s just a strange coincidence (or perhaps it has something to do with our political climate), but everyone I’m talking to these days is learning how to embrace and engage in difficult conversations. You know the ones: When you have to confront your boss because they’re sending you contradictory messages. When you have an employee you have to let go. When you have a teammate who’s spreading negativity behind your back.  A loved one with a diametrically opposed view than yours. You know you want to engage, but how does one engage in those conversations productively?

Remember this lesson: Everything we see hides something else. When we see sadness, anger, frustration, confusion, learn to ask — what’s that hiding? What’s underneath it? What is their anger covering up? Seek that sense of understanding, to know what’s really going on under the surface. As is wisely pointed out in one of my favorite books, Getting to Yes, the key to being able to engage productively in difficult conversations is the ability to state your opponent’s position better than your opponent. That doesn’t mean you’ll change them overnight; nothing happens overnight except sleep. But when you can state their position, and its underlying catalyst, your ‘opponent’ will feel understood by you — and that’s the real tipping point, isn’t it? That’s where there’s room for change, that’s where they begin to really feel heard and seen, and no longer can they say “you just don’t get it.”  Now you can engage them there, where they are, rather than over here where you wish they were. 

Now that’s a conversation that means something. It will take time, of course; it will take persistence, it will take repetition. But that understanding of their position, that’s where it all begins. In the end, I find that most people’s behavior has less to do with being right and more with being heard, seen, understood and validated. Whether you agree with them has less to do with it, than if you respect them.