Have you been dodging a difficult conversation? The kind of conversation that may be uncomfortable, in a situation that you wish would just take care of itself? Are you dancing around a subject, being less direct, less candid than you really should be because you fear conflict or don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings?
You know what’s going to happen, right?
As a result of not being candid, that situation will stew and brew until it erupts and causes more damage than necessary. It’s only a matter of time before one of you gets so frustrated by what’s unspoken that things that shouldn’t be said will be. Instead, just a candid conversation about what needs to be discussed.
I get it. Emotionally, you’d rather risk playing hot potato with that ticking time bomb. It seems less risky than having THAT conversation. I’ve felt the same way at times. You’ll have to weigh the stakes of speaking up vs. letting this one fester. Just don’t wimp out if the stakes of doing so are greater than those few moments of discomfort required to initiate the candid conversation.
To improve personal effectiveness, we’ve got to examine the root of the problem: why we aren’t direct with others. That’ll make it easier to understand the importance of being candid and how such a conversation should sound -- with people at every level of the organization.
Why Are You Dodging Difficult Conversations?
There are so many rationalizations for dodging difficult conversations! I’ve probably used every conceivable one myself! These are some of the most common causes for people to have reservations instead of having conversations. Chances are you’ve noticed yourself making at least one of these excuses, and (in hindsight) you’ve probably seen how this has compromised your effectiveness, too.
Some people are intimidated by authority or people who push back. In uncomfortable situations, they may say whatever ends the conversation most quickly or they may choose to avoid these kinds of conversations altogether. Anger or other strong emotions may be in play here, too.
Poor Self Image
Some folks are overly concerned with their popularity. Do you find that your need to be liked takes priority over the needs of others who could benefit from your feedback?
Some soften or completely avoid harsh truths because they don’t want to hurt the other party’s feelings. While a noble thought, it’s still not a good excuse for being indirect. How can people improve if you’re not helping them to learn from their mistakes?
Sometimes people can’t determine the best way to proceed or are afraid of botching the conversation. In avoiding risk and procrastinating due to a fruitless pursuit of perfection, they fail to make any decision until it’s too late.
Poor Active Listening Skills
Are you hearing what’s really being said, or just smiling and nodding? Are you forgetting to show empathy and prompt the person with follow-up questions? You can’t be fair in a candid conversation if you aren’t a full participant in two-way dialogue.
Lack of Trust
It’s easier to accept candid feedback from people we trust and from people who trust us. Establishing workplace trust -- up, down, and across the organization -- sets you up for success in other ways, too. If you’re not feeling comfortable in candid conversations, consider what work might need to be done to build 2-way trust with the other party.
For some, the risk may seem too high for “telling it like it is.” Fear of retribution, whether minor or serious, may exist. Whether real or perceived, this fear can impede the progress of entire teams.
Perception of Power Imbalance
When you’re speaking with higher-level managers, you may feel it’s not “your place” to speak the truth or share what’s on your mind. You may even feel that your opinion is not worthy, valid, or wanted. Before you assume this is the case, test the waters. You might be surprised as how eager others are to hear your perspective.
Tips for Being More Candid
First, let’s define candor. Candor is frankness, openness, and sincerity in speech or expression.
Being candid is not permission to be brusque, inconsiderate, or mean-spirited. The purpose of candor is clarity and collaboration. If you’re triggering emotional responses, you’ve probably gone overboard instead of being matter-of-fact.
When being candid, you can defuse emotional responses and be more effective when you use these tips:
- Address issues before any toxicity spreads. The longer an issue lingers, the more it can poison your relationship and/or the morale of the office.
- When meeting, sit together on the same side of the table (not across the desk!). Make it clear you’re a teammate, not in some sort of positional power dynamic.
- Focus on the issue, not the person. This will make the talk seem like less of a personal attack.
- Focus only on the specific concern you’re meeting about that day. Don’t let things go off the rails or start rattling off everything you dislike all at once. Keep the topic narrow.
- Avoid hyperbole. Words like “always” and “never” only inflame because they exaggerate the issues. Give specific examples in a neutral tone instead.
- Offer encouragement by showing faith in the other party. People feel better when you boost them up instead of tearing them down. Keep your primary goal in mind -- you want and need people to succeed, so focus forward on how to be successful.
- Make it clear you’re all on the same team, supporting each other. Your success is their success, and vice versa. Let the other party know the purpose of the talk is to improve their chances of success, office morale, and productivity, not issue punishment.
If you’re finding that it’s hard or if you’re still dodging difficult conversations, keep working on it! You’re doing no favors by making other people guess or work for the truth. And you’re chickening out if you task someone else with passing along your feedback to other people. It’s got to be you.
How the Conversation Should Really Go
Sometimes, when attempting to be candid, you have to fight your body’s instincts to do otherwise. Muscles may tense. Your facial expression may change. With practice, these involuntary reactions should lessen.
Fortunately, you can prepare yourself for a candid conversation with a few simple steps:
- Think about what you say AND how you say it. A simple change in style can produce a vastly different conversation.
- Don’t lead with, “I’m unhappy with your actions.” … Instead inquire with an open mind and say, “I want to start by understanding your point of view.” And instead of attacking with “Why didn’t you do this the way I asked?” … start with, “I’d like to discuss ways we can work together more efficiently.”
- Not every fire is going to be put out quickly. If the conversation becomes heated, return to “Inquire with an open mind.” That’s a big one and asking the right follow-up questions may finally get you to the heart of the issue.
In the end, the other party should “get it” and even respect you. They will if you effectively communicate why what you’re saying matters and how the team (and the individual, too!) will benefit from a change in behavior.
Here are the red flags to watch for in your conversation. You’ll be straying from candor and moving into unproductive emotionality if:
- You don’t maintain objectivity.
- You resort to blaming or shaming.
- You use superlatives (always, never).
- You do not offer specifics & examples.
- You beat around the bush.
- You minimize and apologize.
- You “protect” someone from the truth.
- Your message is not clear.
Personal Effectiveness Is Measured Long Term
With these tips, you should be able to reach a mutually agreeable resolution in difficult conversations. That said… resolving a conflict does not mean you have to meet in the middle. In the end, being effective sometimes means doing what’s right despite others’ dissatisfaction with your actions. Be sure to read our previous post about assertiveness in the Why Wait to Be Great? series!
When you’re experiencing self-doubt or second guessing the wisdom of being candid, look bigger picture and longer term. What feels bad today may be justified and appreciated more in the future. Doing what’s right is often not the same as doing what’s easy.
Bigger picture and longer term will also help you strike a balance between the emotions you’re experiencing and the rational thought process that might be getting swamped by those emotions. Take a deep breath and ask yourself these questions:
- If the tables were turned, would I want the other party to tell me? Or would I want them to think this way about me and never give me a chance to change?
- Might I be doing the other person a favor by helping them realize and address this issue? Would this potentially help them in the future, too?
- By not sharing this, am I inadvertently hurting the other person? Is that fair?
- What good will come, long-term, in withholding this information? Really?
- Am I going to be more effective by being direct and assertive or by holding back?
You already know the answers! Now, take a deep breath and go have that difficult conversation. Be candid. Be objective. Be focused on the long-term and the mutual benefits. You’ve got this!