Have you ever found yourself looking for a way out of a difficult conversation?


It’s Tuesday morning and as John is making his way into the office, amid the hustle and bustle of the morning commute, he is thinking about what is on his plate for the day. A pile of stuff that needs to be done – emails to be sent, reports to complete, and a handful of meetings to attend. And then he remembers. He has an 11:00 with Alan. He scheduled this meeting last week after he received yet more feedback from others that Alan is having a negative and demotivating impact on staff and peers. John immediately feels his body tensing and he experiences a heavy sense of dread.


His first thought – “I don’t want to have this conversation”.


He searches for a way out. Maybe his 10:00am will run over, maybe Alan will reschedule, maybe the meeting isn’t really necessary. John is aware he is scrambling and looking for any excuse to get out of this. He doesn’t want to have this conversation with Alan, he feels he shouldn’t have to be dealing with such issues. Then he feels irritated with himself that he struggles with such things at all!


We have all been there. The feeling of discomfort, frustration, concern, irritation and even dread at the thought of having to initiate one of those conversations. The ones that feel sticky, prickly and edgy, the ones we wish we didn’t have to have at all. Every leader has felt this way at times, in fact most leaders feel this way a lot of the time. It is part of the human condition to dislike conflict, and difficult conversations fall squarely into this zone.


Have you ever asked yourself why you just can’t feel more comfortable and confident with difficult conversations?


If this sounds familiar you are not alone. The good news is this is not a personal failing, but rather a normal response from the human brain. We are deeply programmed to move away from anything we find threatening because it could potentially cause us harm. It might seem like a stretch to say John’s conversation with Alan is a threat but this is exactly how our primitive lizard brain is interpreting it. Simply put, the instinctual and emotional part of our brain is insisting the conversation is dangerous and so it is best to find a way out of it. The thinking part of our brain understands there is no real threat. But the emotional brain wants to run for the hills!


Fortunately, we all have the ability to become better around how we approach these tough conversations. Here are a few ways to prepare with confidence:


  • Accept that difficult conversations will never feel comfortable. All too often we fool ourselves into believing that there are some conditions that will take away the discomfort – usually this involves postponing having a conversation until a later date. Don’t fall into this trap – the reality is difficult conversations are by definition …difficult. Accepting this reality and not feeling there should be a way for them to feel easy is an important mindset to have.
  • Recognize that your primary job as a leader is to keep the conversation fluid with all team members. This means having the relevant conversations in a timely fashion – even if they feel difficult. This is not just about project updates, daily activities and strategic initiatives. It is also about checking in with people to learn about their experience of work itself. It is holding people accountable not just for deadlines and goals but also for their behaviour and the impact this is having on others.
  • Permission to be human. It is natural to not want to engage in difficult conversations. Remember, you are feeling unsafe. Science has demonstrated that human beings cannot control first thoughts about perceived conflict. Our thinking brain in an effort to process these very quick instinctual feelings  create a reason that seems to brings sense to us, i.e., thoughts like, “this is bad” and “I shouldn’t have to do this”. Of course, all this does is reinforce the emotional brain’s worry which in turn creates even stronger opinions from the thinking brain and soon we are actively looking for ways out of any difficult conversation. To break out of this defeating pattern is first to know it exists and then to acknowledge, and even embrace, the reality of the feeling brain. It’s ok to feel this way, uncomfortable trouble exist at times and the truth is this feels hard, so give yourself a break!
  • The good news is we do get to choose our second thought. This is the way we break out of the stressful cycle of “feels bad – don’t do it!” We deliberately activate our brilliant thinking brain and get busy focusing on how to address our problems rather than run from them. A very important pro-tip here is, you are far more likely to generate a problem solving mindset towards a difficult conversation if you give yourself permission to feel uncomfortable about it in the first place. It is essential to give yourself permission to be human for sustainable change to occur.
  • Get curious. There is something very refreshing about the energy of curiosity. When we embrace it we can find ourselves almost looking forward to edgy and uncomfortable experiences. Did you know that we cannot be curious and fearful at the same time? It’s true – check it out the next time you find yourself stressing over a conversation you need to have. Instead of worrying about all the things that could go wrong, start thinking about how to find answers so things can go better.

    Getting back to John’s meeting with Alan, he could deliberately tap into his curiosity and instead looking for ways out of the conversation he could ask himself “What would it mean to be a strong leader in this moment?” He could then consider other questions like, “I wonder if Alan understands the impact he is having?”, “What needs to happen in order for everyone to feel respected?”and “Is there more I can be doing to model and encourage more meaningful conversations within my team?”  While these questions might not automatically generate different outcomes they go along way to create an environment where identifying and solving the relevant day-to-day problems become  the status quo. All change, progress and transformation occurs because of the energy of curiosity.

Conflict can not continue to exist when there is a genuine intention of inquiry.


Interested in learning more?

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