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Hard Conversations - When the Soft Skills Suddenly Get Hard

Aug 17, 2007
The hardest job you will ever have is managing or teaching another person, whether that other person is an employee or a child.

It always amuses me that people place a high value on skills such as engineering, economics, medicine and yet what makes or breaks people, defines their life success and how they are seen in society are generally the so called "soft skills" of communication, leadership and interpersonal relationships.

Most people can generally function with day to day basic interactions with other people when things are going well. What trips people up is when there is a need to communicate conflict, anger, fear, unhappiness, hurt or another so called negative emotion.

Part of my job as a coach and HR practitioner is coaching managers in ways to hold hard conversations - particularly during performance reviews or discipline meetings.

We have trouble owning and acknowledging these difficult emotions in ourselves. We find it even harder to communicate these feelings in an effective way to other people. The degree of difficulty in communicating our feelings with others is a direct correlation with the degree of acceptance in ourselves of these emotions.

Let me give you a personal example. For years I lived by the personally applied label that I was a "calm and happy person that never got angry". I believed that anger was something that happened to other people and you could choose whether or not you were angry.

In real terms I just pushed my anger down inside - into food, passive aggressive behaviour and complaining. Of course, by not owning that I was angry, I had real problems with handling conflict, not the easiest place to be in as at that time I worked in Industrial Relations and conflict made up about 80% of all interactions.

This of course affected my approach to IR. I quickly built a reputation for building solid relationships with all people on all sides of the IR fence, so we could work out options without heat. Worked well except for really intense conflicts when my insides would turn to puddles and I was less than effective.

When faced with fear you have two options hardwired into your brain, fight or flight. You can stay and punch it out or run like the wind. Nike would have considered sponsoring me if they knew how good I used to be at running away!

How this plays out with many managers, is that prefer to resign (flight) or sack (fight) someone rather than have a conversation that will challenge or surface their feeling.

So how do you learn to have the hard conversations?

First start by observing yourself. What emotions don't you believe that you regularly have? Identify at least 5 people who annoy you and the reasons why. It is often the things that we hate most in others that are the things we don't own in ourselves. Do we hate people who are selfish? Then we are probably selfish. Do we hate people who are "only in it for the money"? What part of ourselves is motivated by greed? Do we hate people who are angry or who whine? What does that tell you about yourself?

Once you have an idea of where your hidden weaknesses may lie, and then play the "if/then" game. Start with something simple to get your mind used to exploring this possibility. Imagine you are left handed, but you believe that being left handed is bad and wrong. What would you do to try and fit in? What if you were under stress and had to do something quickly, what would you do? How would you feel if someone caught you using your left hand?

Now imagine for a moment you are observing an angry person who believes that they are not allowed to be angry, then what would they do/say or think? What conversations would they have trouble having? How would they interact with their employees or children when they were angry (remembering they believe that being angry is bad)? What other emotions would they feel if they were angry?

So - back to hard conversations. By doing these exercises you know what areas you may have trouble having conversations about. If you are faced with one of these conversations, in the heat of the moment you will either fight or run. The trick is to mentally rehearse what you are going to say a number of times before you walk into the situation. Do a few trial runs with a trusted friend or colleague to get the feel of saying what you want or need to say with another person.

By repetition and practice, you will start to change the neural pathways in your brain and start to teach yourself other ways of behaving. As you change your behaviour, your ownership and acceptance of these emotions in yourself will change, which in turn changes your behaviour further, creating a spiraling effect. Celebrate each small improvement in your response to situations, no matter how minor.

Finally, be gentle on yourself when you are faced with a hard conversation. You are just like the left handed person trying to operate in a right handed world. Feelings are normal and natural - it is what you do with them that makes you who you are.
About the Author
Ingrid Cliff is a Business Development and Human Resources Consultant to Small and Medium Businesses. Ingrid has just published Instant HR Policies and Procedures for Small and Medium Businesses www.heartharmony.com.au
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