Helping leaders emerge


Tough Conversations

Being able to have tough conversations is an important part of being an effective leader – whether at work, in our communities, or at home with family members. Most people shy away from engaging in difficult conversations because it often feels uncomfortable and/or like they are being unkind. But to quote Brene’ Brown: clear is kind and unclear is unkind.

The key to being able to have tough conversations is being clear about what you want to say and how you are want to say it, and having a set of thoughtful questions makes the process more effective and easier – and will help manage anxiety around having the conversation.

Recently, a client struggled with one of his direct reports who was gaining a reputation for taking over meetings, not listening to other colleagues, and shutting down discussions. As a result, team members did not feel like their opinions were heard or valued, not committed to final decisions and not fully engaged in their work.

My client decided to provide the tough feedback to his direct report – he wanted to see if he could help her shift her behavior from thinking she always knew the best solution on her own to one where she was being more collaborative through active listening, asking questions, and engaging others for their point of view.

My client used the following framework to prepare himself for having the tough conversation with his direct report (see below for his process). This framework was developed over a series of workshops I led for an organization on having critical conversations. Personally, I have used this framework successfully whether at work, at home, and in the school system with teachers as I’ve advocated for my son and daughter.

Steps for Preparing for Tough Conversations

How do I want to “show up” for this meeting? What are 3-5 things I would like to hear the other person (or a fly on the wall) say about me after the meeting? Able to give the tough feedback, empathetic, fair, supportive, and calm.

What do I want? What is my goal for this meeting? What does success look like from my point of view? To deliver the tough feedback and see if she is able to hear me and willing to change her behavior. Get information– understand that she may or may not be able to hear the feedback, so I need to remain grounded and calm regardless.

What does the other person want? What might a successful meeting look like from the other person’s point of view? To be recognized as a a valued leader within the organization. To be able to hear the feedback in a way that she is inspired (versus embarrassed or shamed) in order to make a change in her behavior to be a better leader.

What is best for the relationship? What can I say or do in order to bring in a sense of generosity, enhance the relationship, and lead to more trust? I believe this to be a blind spot of hers and not consistent with what I know of her values as a person and that I believe her behaviors are not consistent with her intentions.

What is best for the business? What are the needs of the business? That her job as a leader is not to know everything – or even be the expert – but to depend on her team for their expertise. Best for the business if everyone feels like they have a chance to contribute in meetings – team needs to feel like they are listened to and that they are valued for their opinions .

How can I be honest and respectful? How will I demonstrate that I’m listening to the other person? What do I want to communicate via my body language and tone? How might my need to be liked get in the way of having a tough conversation? I will start from a place of generosity and respect and share that I think this is a blind spot and make sure she does not think I am judging or shaming her. I will share a situation of my own development if it is helpful and appropriate. I will be careful to use the right tone and not show up as aggressive or harsh.

How do I minimize drama? What do I need to refrain from saying that might trigger the other person and make them feel defensive? What are my watch-outs? I need to be sensitive and make sure she has time and space to process. I will make sure that I make this about leadership development – that we all have things we are working on. I will offer support and resources so that she can work on changing her behavior.

How do I remain calm? How will I prepare myself for the meeting and what will I do so I don’t go into reactive mode? If I do get triggered, how will I get centered again? I will remind myself that this is an important conversation and be okay with feeling uncomfortable. I will take a short walk before the meeting. During the meeting I will focus on my breath and feet on the floor to stay grounded. If things get heated, I will suggest a coffee or bathroom break to give us both time to get centered.

Aimless Love by Billy Collins

This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,
I fell in love with a wren
and later in the day with a mouse
the cat had dropped under the dining room table.

In the shadows of an autumn evening,
I fell for a seamstress
still at her machine in the tailor’s window,
and later for a bowl of broth,
steam rising like smoke from a naval battle.

This is the best kind of love, I thought,
without recompense, without gifts,
or unkind words, without suspicion,
or silence on the telephone.

The love of the chestnut,
the jazz cap and one hand on the wheel.

No lust, no slam of the door—
the love of the miniature orange tree,
the clean white shirt, the hot evening shower,
the highway that cuts across Florida.

No waiting, no huffiness, or rancor—
just a twinge every now and then

for the wren who had built her nest
on a low branch overhanging the water
and for the dead mouse,
still dressed in its light brown suit.

But my heart is always propped up
in a field on its tripod,
ready for the next arrow.

After I carried the mouse by the tail
to a pile of leaves in the woods,
I found myself standing at the bathroom sink
gazing down affectionately at the soap,

so patient and soluble,
so at home in its pale green soap dish.
I could feel myself falling again
as I felt its turning in my wet hands
and caught the scent of lavender and stone.