The art of the difficult conversation

The right mind-set is critical in approaching difficult conversationsHow do you approach difficult conversations?

Few people relish having them and many would prefer to avoid them altogether. Indeed, with an array of alternative means of communication such as email and SMS readily available, it’s easy to understand the temptation to take what might seem a safer, less confrontational option.

But in an uncertain, crisis-rocked business world, having the right mind-set to approach and manage difficult conversations in the right way is an increasingly critical factor in business success.

In our new course on Management Communications as part of the MBA programme at NUS Business School, we focus on developing these skills for the next generation of business leaders.

Conversation of possibility

The course is based on training that we at the LinHart Group give to top executives in companies across Asia and around the world.

Most, if not all of them, are facing change of some form or another; changes which inevitably mean disruptions that no-one is particularly well equipped to handle.

Many of today’s business leaders focus solely on the rational, data-driven side of decision making; sidelining the fact that many of the biggest decisions carry with them a large emotional component.

So our training helps current or aspiring business leaders to see and manage these challenges from a fresh perspective and with a broader mind-set. The aim: to coax, encourage and challenge them to turn a difficult conversation into what we call a conversation of possibility.

Our view is that what makes a difficult conversation difficult is primarily emotion. Whatever it is that’s difficult is difficult because you’re stuck on it, and that in turn gives it gigantic emotional proportions.

Many of today’s business leaders focus solely on the rational, data-driven side of decision making; sidelining the fact that many of the biggest decisions carry with them a large emotional component.

However, especially in times of change, emotions such as hope, fear, pride and others are among the most significant drivers of action.

Greater good

With that in mind, our training focuses on ways to look at whatever that difficult issue is from a different perspective, reorienting it into something that can be tackled in the context of the greater good – something that everyone can work towards.

meeting280Emotions are among the most significant drivers of actionIn this way the emotional aspect becomes a core part of the process, rather than something to be feared or avoided, in turn making the issue itself less intimidating.

Getting there however requires a high degree of sensitivity, balanced with a willingness to discuss the delicate subject of feelings in a work environment.

For many in leadership positions, indeed many people generally, discussing feelings in a work environment is something we prefer to avoid. Many simply feel uncomfortable venturing into this area with colleagues to whom they do not feel any particular emotional connection.

But because feelings play such an important role, we feel that the most successful leaders are those who can create safety zones where people feel able and even confident to express their feelings.

By doing so, conversations broaden from being simply an issue of the mind to also include the heart.

To allow this, we encourage leaders to look at ways of building an environment for discussion where everyone involved can recognise how feelings are affecting the conversation.

Emotional safety

ThinkAloud7Fundamentally, this starts with a leadership approach that is sensitive and aware – one that strikes a balance between holding back and being confrontational – so that people feel comfortable talking about whatever difficult issue is at hand in an all-inclusive way.

The successful leader’s job then is to establish a sense of emotional safety, framing the conversation in such a way that unleashes the positive emotions and feelings that then energises the group’s approach to whatever difficult issue is at hand.

A large part of this comes from an ability to be deeply compassionate as a leader; someone who listens and understands why others are finding things difficult, particularly during processes of disruptive change.

From my own experience, as someone who used to follow quite a hard-edged, possibly even harsh approach to leadership, I’ve seen from experience that it’s very hard to resolve difficult issues with toughness alone.

Approaches that are harsh and judgemental – comments such as “how can you not get this?!” for example – understandably tend to trigger defensive responses.

Rather than a constructive conversation of possibility, the result tends to be that you end up instead with an unproductive, straight-down-the-line argument.

Support

Leadership is about the mindset and attitudes that deliver influence

A far more effective approach, we argue, comes from leaders who recognise that in times of change it is not just about what they say, but about how they see other people and understand their stake in the issue.

So, rather than simply giving training to staff to develop new skills, the best corporate leaders recognise that people also need support and opportunities to understand and embrace the new realities, in their business, and for themselves.

The flipside is that if you as a leader are not doing this, and not initiating and having these conversations, then you are largely leaving your employees on their own.

A few will probably figure it out for themselves, but most will not necessarily – whereas they could also have been brought into the light had they been included in conversations of the possible.

Influential leadership

In our training, one of our fundamental premises is that leadership is about the mindset and attitudes that deliver influence, far more than it is about titles.

More than having the letters “CEO” on your office door, we take the view that the most effective leaders are those who make a conscious choice to influence others to move in a positive direction – and who will stay with them through difficult times.

Influential leaders are those who have the insight and credibility to chart a direction through difficult times to achieve successful business transition by mobilising collective wisdom.

But equally important they must be able to connect that direction to what matters to people personally and emotionally – unleashing their natural energies to want to move forward, be part of some thing positive, while striking the right balance of encouraging, cajoling, supporting and challenging them as they make the journey of change.

Few leaders will find that all of this comes naturally – it’s something that has to be worked on, developed and continuously improved. The training that we give is just the start.

But in a business climate where change and disruption are the only constant, being equipped with the mindset to handle these difficult conversations – and translating them into conversations of possibility – will be a critical asset.

  • Author Profile

    Huijin Kong is a Program Leader and Counselor with LinHart Group. Her work spans conceptualising new leadership development programs, designing programs and interventions, facilitation, and coaching leaders.

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