Hard conversations aren’t about finding perfection

Would you agree the world is in a state of turmoil and just shifting through the cacophony of noise and emotions can be daunting? Throw in the prospect of needing to have that difficult conversation with a volunteer, staff member, colleague etc., and it’s a wonder we all just don’t crawl under our desks. Having those conversations, however, are often crucial to moving forward not only for our organizations but for ourselves as well. So how can we reset our emotional states and, instead of assuming the worst outcomes, recognize the enormous potential hard conversations can offer?

In his presentation The Hardest Conversations are the Most Important Ones: The Power of Perspectives at last month’s CEX 2020, Lowell Applebaum, FASAE, CAE, CPF, CEO & Strategy Catalyst at Vista Cova began by encouraging us to see these conversations as opportunities that can lead to better understanding and growth. Using the tools he shared allows us to gain a broader perspective, negotiate success and acceptable parameters, and build consensus by allowing multiple voices the space to be heard. We might even experience apologies and/or forgiveness. Below are a few of my takeaways from the presentation:

Using reflection. Start by thinking about how you have felt in the past after a difficult conversation. What can you learn from it? Recognizing these feelings won’t make the conversation easier but may help you “tame the beast” so to speak.

*A quick side note: In a recent novel I read, a main character told his younger brother that when you fear something, you should get closer to it. Make it familiar. This won’t make the thing any less awful, but you will be better able to handle it because it will never be as awful as you could have imagined.

Defining success. Ask yourself what you are looking for – i.e., what is your win – in this conversation. Are you looking to understand something, promote a call for action, or simply vent? If you can’t clearly state what success looks like, it may be time to rethink the scope of the conversation.

Identifying barriers. Think about what could prevent the win. Will past feelings, inherent bias, differing POVs interfere? Will your own filters (i.e., culture, language, values, beliefs, attitudes, expectations, intentions) have an effect as you go into the conversation? Will the other person’s filters interfere? As above, recognizing these barriers can help you avoid misunderstandings.

Setting the stage. Consider the setup (both the physical space and the agenda). What are the power dynamics of the setting and is it conducive to you listening? Do you have an agreement on topics to discuss, what you are trying to accomplish, on the timing of the conversation? The right preparation can ease the tension that could potentially derail the conversation.

Finding your sensory triggers. Think about your emotional state before entering into the conversation. Are you feeling anxious, uncomfortable, defensive …  before you even get started? Do you need to reset or refresh your outlook? If so, look for quick sensory triggers that will create positive emotions and allow you to be open to the possibilities.

Recalibrating your questions. Once the conversation begins, pay attention to the questions you ask. Recognize that understanding is achieved through inquiry. Also, think about what your intention is behind the questions – to listen or to reply?  Ask questions that are open-ended to encourage dialogue, seek the other party’s vision or “win” (likely won’t be the same as yours), and identify bridges of connections to open the door to hearing each other.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
– Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

Preparing for stumbling blocks. Realize there is a chance you may hit an impasse. What will you do if you just can’t get on the same page or place on an issue? If you don’t feel your perspective is being heard or you are unsure of what moving forward looks like? If these can’t be resolved, it may be the time where you need help to move forward such as a neutral space or a 3rd party mediator/facilitator. You could also agree beforehand on recording the conversation to avoid future misunderstandings about what was said.

Evaluating the conversation. After the conversation is over, be sure you know the next steps especially if the issue at hand was not fully resolved. Is there an agreement or shared understanding of what took place? Is there further action to be taken and if so, what are the next steps, what role will each play in the next steps, and what is the timeline?

Final thoughts: Give yourself and the other person space and grace to be imperfect. Recognize hard conversations aren’t about perfection; they are about finding and getting to a better endpoint that serves both parties’ interests. Meaningful change comes from hard conversations. Embrace it.

This 2020 CEX session was part of CRP Love: Treat Yourself & Hone Your Skills, a series of fast rounds focusing on developing and honing skills in specific areas including facilitation, tough conversations, communications, presentations, and pitching. Be sure to read a quick recap of the full CEX 2020 experience.

Image is from the presentation: The Hardest Conversations are the Most Important Ones: The Power of Perspectives

*This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger (in case you’re interested).