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Making difficult conversations a little less difficult

“The problem is not the content of your message, but the condition of the conversation.”

Crucial Conversations Paterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler

Our brain has been wired across the ages to protect us as individuals – it looks out for threats and aims to keep us safe. That works beautifully if we are in physical danger – if there is a fire for instance. It can work a little less effectively when we are having a discussion with someone and your brain goes on high alert – this can lead to emotional outbursts, sullenness or physical reactions.

We’ve all experienced conversations where we have felt threatened or ‘unsafe’. Sometimes it is an overt verbal attack that sets us on edge and sometimes it is a subtle comment, such as a criticism of our work. Many times the feeling of being in danger comes not from words, rather from someone’s non verbal actions – such as a raised eyebrow, a sarcastic smile, a threatening stance.

Once our brains detect a threat, the body prepares itself to flee, fight or freeze. As such, energy resources are diverted to areas of the body that are required to act in survival mode. That means that when we feel threatened, we may be approaching a difficult conversation with very little reserves left for rational thought and effective decision-making.

Complexity is added to our dwindling logical thinking ability if we are already under pressure (e.g. if we have to respond unexpectedly and spontaneously; or if we have other stressful issues impacting us) or we are uncertain (e.g. we haven’t dealt with this before).

What’s a manager or leader’s role in this?

As a manager and leader, if you want to get the best out of an interaction with another person, you need to consider the environment that you are creating. Do you make it safe?

Some of you may be thinking “Why do I need to make it safe when I might be correcting someone’s mistakes or poor performance?

Simply put, if you have the intent of supporting their improvement and enhancing their ability to achieve into the future, you will need to create an environment in which they can truly HEAR and UNDERSTAND your message. People are not so great at hearing things when their body and mind feels threatened – they are simply using their energy to ‘survive’ – by withdrawing, making excuses, redirecting blame, or fighting back.

How do you then, make it safe for someone? You obviously can’t control the way their mind works or their actions. All you can do is influence through your own behaviours and words.

How can managers and leaders help create a ‘safe’ environment?

Some ways to create a safe environment for others include:

  • Start with positive intent – what are you truly trying to achieve here and is it well intentioned? Does the outcome  you seek have benefit for all parties?
  • Plan well – do you know what outcome you are looking for? What should you say or do to achieve that outcome?
  • Determine where and when – ensure this is appropriate to the discussion
  • Frame it -provide context for the discussion and what you are trying to achieve
  • Reduce the personal – ensure this is not a discussion of accusation – for example, rather than “you did..” try “I’m concerned…
  • Allow space – seek input from the other person and allow space for them to process and understand what you are saying;
  • Breathe – remain calm, even if the other person is unsettled or emotive; if you mirror negative emotions, the situation will only deteriorate

Human interactions can seem fraught with danger. What will you do to make it safe for others and have productive discussions, even when the content is difficult?

Related podcast with extra information (click on title and scroll down podcast page): Ep 7: Can we make difficult conversations a little less difficult? 

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