“We fear the heat of an honest encounter”
The headline above is a quote from an article in the Irish Times by Tony Bates, Director of Headstrong (Feb 1st, 2011). The article talks about the importance of being able to have honest and open conversations about difficulties we might encounter, be it in the workplace, at home, with friends. Our fear of it going wrong and upsetting the other deters us but unfortunately it usually manages to leak out in some other possibly even more destructive ways.
Only yesterday, a discussion arose during a training course with a senior management team of how it can be so much easier to just put up with a situation rather than say something, for fear of it escalating. These fears are based on in my view myths that we have about difficult conversations so let’s explore (and explode!) some of them here:
Myth 1: An honest conversation has to be ‘confrontation’:
In Conflict Coaching or Mediation when I explore with people how they might discuss a situation that has upset or annoyed them, they usually say ‘I don’t want to be confrontative or aggressive’ – it’s as if the only alternative to saying nothing is to say something in a way that will be harsh and cause the issue to escalate and get out of control.
This kind of all or nothing thinking couldn’t be further from the truth and even thinking like this sets up a polarised view of the situation – it has to be either me or them.
With good preparation a difficult conversation can be transformed from a confrontation that drives people apart to one which brings greater understanding and clarity for both and leaves each feeling they have been treated with respect.
Myth 2: If it gets heated at all, then it’s over
Conflict theory tells us that the heat is very often a necessary part of the difficult conversation – in fact the route to harmony and resolution is only through some level of people being upset or angry in the exchange. It’s a bit like mountain climbing – the clear view only comes after we’ve sweated and ached on the way up. Yes, it might get heated but there are ways to manage that and get you and the other person through it that don’t cause long-term damage to the relationship.
Myth 3: If they don’t see my point in the first five minutes, then they never will
Having an exchange that allows both persons to get the depth of understanding that might be required to give more clarity and open up ways forward takes time and again, has a natural trajectory. If we go back to the mountain analogy again, you wouldn’t expect to see the beautiful view when you’ve just reached the top of the first hill. The path that the other person might have to travel in order to fully comprehend your point of view will take time. Your hesitancy in having the conversation for fear of upsetting the other is an indication that there is an emotional journey that will have to be made also for that person and will involve ups and downs for both of you. You have to accept that it will take time and sometimes quite a bit of perseverance on your part.
Myth 4: You can’t be honest
This is the catch-22 – I want to have an honest conversation but can’t be honest’ So what do you want to be honest about? If you want to be honest about some of the negative thoughts and possibly derogatory terms in which you might want to describe them (he’s so bossy/arrogant/mean..) yes that kind of honesty – can be unproductive.
So much depends on how you frame it, how you say it.
For example, are you going to be blaming and shaming with phrases such as ‘You are..’ ‘You did…’ ‘It’s all your fault…’ .
Or could you go for simply naming i.e. ‘I was upset when you said….’ or ‘I consider you have some responsibility here for what took place..’ .
You can be honest about the impact of the situation on you or on the business/family.
You can be honest that it has impacted on how you view them or the level of trust between you.
Yes it might cause some escalation, hurt and upset that the other person might feel as a consequence. You then need to be ready to respond – do they need empathy, some acknowledgement (of the upset, not of them being right!) or maybe it’s simply a some reasoned and calm reiteration of the changes you would like to see.
Myth 5: If I say nothing, perhaps it will all go away
Not always a myth perhaps as sometimes things can be best left alone but my own experience (as a natural avoider) is that it nearly always comes back to bite. You say nothing at the time, appear unperturbed but then invest lots of energy in convincing yourself that it isn’t worth getting into with the other person.
Time passes and then there is another interaction – again, you act as if everything was normal but underneath, there has been an attitude change for you. So while you mightn’t be rude or nasty or overtly annoyed, there will be very subtle influence – you are less willing, less agreeable and eventually, it gets expressed.
It might be through sins of omission rather than commission e.g. forgetting to tell them about a meeting that’s coming up or not involving them adequately in a task but more than likely, it will impact negatively. So you’ve just postponed the thing you’ve been afraid of – a conflict or upsetting exchange with the other person.
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