Difficult conversations

Posted by  Mark Schenk —April 6, 2009
Filed in Communication

At a recent leadership program we were talking about values and a participant related a recent experience: “Another manager gave one of her staff a real serve in front of the whole office. I was appalled, it set such a bad example. And one of our values is respect for the individual”. When I asked what happened when he ‘called’ her on the behaviour, the reply was a blank look and “er, well, I didn’t say anything”.

According to Human Synergistics data, the number two style for Australian and New Zealand mangers is ‘Avoidance’ (number one is Oppositional – oppose ideas and be critical of others). So, imagine 10 million managers and workers in Australia avoiding having difficult conversations.

Avoiding difficult conversations like the example above has a huge downside when it comes to organisational values. If behaviour that contravenes your values is not ‘called’ then you are effectively condoning it. So, having difficult conversations is critical in bringing your values to life. A value is only a value if you do something when it is contravened.

When we work with organisations to improve their ability to have these difficult conversations we find a few gems, like “One of my fellow managers, who is also a friend, is very loud. She is a good person, and a good manager, but she just talked too loud. I wanted to talk to her about it but I knew she wouldn’t take it well. But I had to do it. And you know, she took it really well, was grateful for the feedback. It really surprised me”.

A key behaviour we encourage groups to adopt to make these conversations possible is ‘Call me on it…respectfully and with good intent’. Would your organisation be a better place if these difficult conversations were the norm rather than the exception?

Mark Schenk About  Mark Schenk

Mark works globally with senior leadership teams to improve their ability to communicate clearly and memorably. He has been a Director of Anecdote since 2004 and helped the company grow into one of the world’s leading business storytelling consultancies. Connect with Mark on:

2 Responses to “Difficult conversations”

  1. tony joyce Says:

    Difficult conversations are universally difficult, it seems. It probably has more to do with human nature than organizations. As I read your post I was also rereading this piece from Strategy and Business on Edith and Charles Seashore Masters of the Breakthrough Moment.

    It isn’t just an Australian condition:). Yes, our organizations would be better if difficult conversations were the norm.

  2. chris colton Says:

    Kerry Petterson and others have published two very good books on this subject; Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations.
    One of the interesting points at the beginning of Crucial Conversations is the physical effect that results from the emotional stress we can feel when entering into a crucial conversation, for example a “calling it” conversation. This can reduce our ability to think rationally at the very point we need to choose our words carefully. It suggests we need to prepare carefully for such conversations.

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