A client continues to miss calls. One of your direct reports is missing important deadlines. You need to let someone go...a customer, a client, an employee, a significant other. Difficult conversations.
These challenges are an important part of what it means to be in relationship with other people. In each instance, there is an opportunity to create clean "AIR" - to step more fully into Authenticity, to point towards greater Intimacy, to grow ever more Responsible for one's own learning. Sounds good, right?
And yet we tend to avoid these difficult conversations like the dickens. We procrastinate and blame. We fashion elaborate emails to make our point. We ignore the problem, hoping things will improve on their own. We do just about everything except, as Lady Macbeth says, screw our courage to the sticking place and wade into a difficult conversation.
Conversation: From the Latin 'con', means 'with' or 'towards'; 'vertere' meaning 'to turn'. Conversation...to turn with and towards. What if every difficult conversation was an opportunity to turn with someone towards something? Here's a radical idea: What if you started with the assumption that you were on the same side? That there is a place of connection?
Difficult conversations don't have to be fractious. Often we focus on the problem rather than the opportunity and person. When we have to fire someone, we tend to put our attention on the problem to be solved rather than the human being. Our relationship can remain intact despite disagreement if we demonstrate during a difficult conversation that the relationship is the priority. This provides the environment to find alignment more than agreement. It's not about stepping over anything or making nice, but about "I hear and understand your position, you hear and understand mine. They may be different but what do we still share? A goal? Some values? A vision?"
Every conversation will help us learn and grow. It's not always about it being a happy conversation, but a rewarding one. And when you focus on the relationship, not the issue, the issue is magically easier to resolve.
No matter how challenging, in every difficult conversation is an opportunity to turn towards something in relationship with someone else. The AIR acronym is useful here. The AIR has become somewhat toxic. This conversation is an opportunity to generate cleaner AIR so that everyone, most particularly you, can breathe more freely.
Authenticity: What is the authentic truth that needs to be spoken? What are the values you need to honor in this conversation? Note that being right or self-righteous is not a value that anyone's authentic self truly holds. I'm talking about values like integrity, honesty, communication, clarity, heart, etc.
Intimacy: Where do you need to put your attention so that you can be fully present with the person that is there, rather than the one you wish was there or think should be there? It's useful in difficult conversations to distinguish the person from the issue. Whatever the issue, the other person is still a human being with imperfections, fears, hopes and dreams. They are worthy of your respect and compassion simply because they draw breath. This doesn't mean that you need to compromise on the action that needs to be taken. Performance issues still need to be corrected. People still need to be let go. You still need to leave a relationship that no longer serves you. All of these actions can proceed with dignity and respect and love.
Responsibility: Begin by looking at how you have contributed to the current situation. Any relationship challenge is co-created and it is useful to own your part. You have very little control over another person's response and infinite choice about your own conduct. It doesn't help to plan out the conversation or fret about all the "what ifs". What if they get reactive? What if they yell? What if they blame me? What if they refuse to listen?
You'll find that in any conversation, the person with the most flexibility is the one that is most resourceful. There are several Co-Active skills that will help you stay grounded and clear if you work on developing them:
- Curiosity - Come from a curious place of wanting to explore and understand the other's perspective. It doesn't mean you have to give up your point of view to want to learn about theirs. It shows you care about them, hold their view as valid and are looking for alignment. It also makes them less defensive.
- Deep Listening - We think we listen and we don't, especially when we're anxious. What helps is to breathe, relax the body, and really try to listen to what's being said, knowing you don't have to agree or disagree.
- Acknowledgement - To enhance the connection, help the other person feel held, seen and known, acknowledge them. It puts the focus on the relationship rather than the problem. Don't praise what they do but notice who they are, who they're being in this conversation. People are astonished when they receive real acknowledgements, it's so rare.
Here are some more tips for having a difficult conversation:
- Beforehand, look at any responsibility you can take about the situation and plan to own that in the conversation.
- Organize your thinking so you're clear about what you want to communicate. With this person, what do you want to turn towards in the conversation?
- Decide ahead of time who you're going to be in the conversation and develop a strategy to recover to that. How will you notice when you're slipping and find your way back?
- Look for several things you respect about the person. Go in with a positive frame.
- Take your time with the conversation. Mirror back what they've said so they know they're heard. Acknowledge them often.
- Make clear requests about what you want to change or be done differently.
- In conclusion, review what is being agreed to. Acknowledge and celebrate the other person. Set a new context for the relationship moving forward: You still wish them well. Will you all stay in touch or not?
The most important thing about difficult conversations is to have them. Have lots of them. Let them get messy and human and real. After all, that's what being a human being is all about...your human-ness and your human-mess. Let go of the illusion that you are supposed to have it all together and step into the freshness and liberation of clean AIR in all your relationships.