Is this you, I wonder? Before lockdown you’d been putting off a difficult conversation with a colleague for months. Every day you’d gear yourself up. You’d play the scenario over in your mind. How you planned to bump into her in the corridor and in as casual a manner as you could muster, mention your concerns.

But naturally, the conversation didn’t happen. You never felt quite up to it and every time you spotted her, you dashed away, persuading yourself that today wasn’t the day for such a potentially awkward time. And now, well, there’s not much bumping into people in corridors, is there?

Is that how it went? If so, I know how you feel. I have been deeply reluctant to have these tough conversations all my life and it’s one of the biggest challenges I see with the nonprofit leaders that I coach.

Any of these scenarios familiar?

– A senior colleague talks over you and the rest of your team. You’re annoyed but you worry you won’t be able to stand up for yourself if you confront him. He’s a strong character and there’s a real personality clash going on

– One of your reports is sulky and withdrawn. She’s undermining your authority in front of others but it’s so hard to know how to approach her. She applied for your role and is obviously unhappy about you full-stop.

– Your chair is not supporting you. She is stuck in her ways. Something needs to change but you really, really don’t want to address it. She’ll be moving on soon and, well, it’s easier just to ride it out.

Yep? I really get it. Tackling these kind of challenges is scary. Most of us avoid them like the plague. The fear of all the yucky discomfort a difficult conversation can bring means they can get put them off endlessly. Who wants to feel that uncomfortable?

Bring on the goodies

But here’s the thing. When my clients and I faced the yuckiness of so called ‘difficult’ conversations and developed the skills for having them successfully, amazing things started to happen. A whole load of goodies came our way. It could be the same for you.

Difficult conversations can bring goodies

  • First up, you can let go of all that fear! You don’t have to worry any more about having conversations like this. Fear and worry take up a lot of our emotional energy and affect how capable we feel. Wouldn’t it be great to let that all go and focus on what you really want to be doing which is leading your team with confidence?
  • Another outcome is that the other person changes the exact behaviour you were unhappy about. Result! You’ll need a clear, positive goal you both agree on for this to happen. (I’ll be talking about how to do that in my next blog.)
  • It might seem surprising, but difficult conversations can be hugely empowering for the other person. Let’s get clear – you’re not making a personal criticism. You’re not judging. You’re not ‘having a go’. You are encouraging them to be even more effective in their role by focusing on specific behaviour change. They are getting a precious gift that they can use to grow and develop which is what make us better at our jobs. As long as it isn’t a personal attack the other person can leave the conversation feeling really good about themselves.
  • And it’s hugely empowering for you, too. When you push through fears. When you’re willing to feel uncomfortable and take responsibility for this necessary part of your role, you learn and grow. The courage muscle is flexed and its much easier next time.
  •  Finally, other people notice. The willingness to have these difficult conversations is the sign of a true leader. Peers, reports and other leaders will notice that you took responsibility and did the right thing, however difficult. That’s big.

When you think of these conversations as ‘brave’ or ‘courageous’ conversations as Brené Brown does, or even ‘fierce’ conversations like Susan Scott suggests, or candid ones, as I like, you realise that not having them is actually a major act of sabotage. Avoidance stops you from getting all the goodies that a successful conversation can bring, for you, for the other person and for your organisation. What these conversations really are is brave, authentic and honest and they can have a really powerful impact.

What next?

If you’d like support with difficult conversations or any other aspect of your leadership role, I’d love to talk to you.  Send me an email or give me a call and we can be talking very soon.