If I had to name our era, I might call it the “Season of Difficult Conversations.” At home or work, on social media or the phone, out in public or in private, among colleagues, family, or perfect strangers—we have all encountered and continue to feel the abrasive differences that emerge when personal, professional, political, and social reckonings are underway. If you have felt burned or otherwise emotionally harmed in interactions, you are definitely not alone. But you probably have also discovered that the aftereffects of a difficult conversation can make you less willing to engage in the future, evading sensitive, critical subjects just to keep the peace and avoid the grief they might entail.
We most commonly associate these conversations with the conspicuous political issues that have broken up old complacencies and put long-held assumptions under the spotlight. But the difficulties in communication are not limited to these subjects. When preconceptions and adrenaline charge interactions, it’s difficult to shed this dynamic in any tough conversation, regardless of the subject matter. Evolving politically, professionally, personally, and socially is a good thing, but my focus here is on the way in which we move—through conversation—toward a more informed place. The goal is to feel respected and empowered through communication, not defeated or demoralized.
Evasion is not the answer. We cannot simply ignore and steer clear of difficult conversations. In business, especially, this avoidant tendency can lead to serious consequences for an organization, particularly when it manifests between managers and their teams. I have heard from employees who, rather than risk the discomfort of a difficult conversation with their manager, would neglect to report missed deadlines, equipment failures, and other workflow obstructions, leading to far greater problems down the road. Sometimes they even go so far as to find a different job rather than discussing a solvable problem. The simple remedy of a better conversation could prevent entirely unnecessary outlays of time and money.
So, what can we do? I have recently found some good answers to this question in Nancy Dome’s RIR Protocol. She is primarily invested in recognizing and overcoming unconscious bias in the workplace—an important issue in our work at TGC—but her protocol can be applied to virtually any sensitive conversation. It involves three steps to follow when personal emotions begin to overwhelm the substance of an interaction, quoted here from the linked article above:
Recognize: Identify the feelings evoked by a person’s appearance, words, or behavior.
Interrupt: Stop the usual cycle of reacting based on “gut” feelings and take a moment to challenge them.
Repair: Define action steps to continue addressing unconscious bias in a sustainable way that promotes long-term change.
Notice how the first step involves distinguishing between another person’s words and your own feelings about them. This distinction can get jumbled if we don’t take responsibility for our own responses. It can lead to assumptions about that person’s motivations or personality that are inaccurate, which, in turn, lead to further misinterpretations about the issues being raised. We have very little real control over other people, but we can control how we respond to them—and I have found that when I take responsibility for my reactions, the person I am interacting with will more likely meet me halfway.
After you “recognize” a spike in your unpleasant emotions during a difficult conversation, try to play the devil’s advocate, but reason with yourself in a compassionate way. This is the moment to “interrupt” the cycle and account for how you feel in order to dampen the reactivity. It may also involve interrupting genuinely negative behaviors or systems in your organization, if warranted upon reflection, through further inquiry and informed suggestions. Notice how none of these steps are an attempt to control or manipulate the other person. The beauty of this protocol is that your willingness to challenge yourself will more likely produce a similar self-examination in the other person, resulting in greater receptivity and progress.
Dome’s final step involves “repair.” It is critical that you come away from a difficult conversation with the intent to implement what you have learned about yourself and the situation. It demonstrates to yourself and those around you that you are not just performing receptivity in order to smooth over unpleasant interactions; you are actually taking steps to solve problems and take personal responsibility. Again, those around you will likely respond to this demonstration with their own thoughtfulness and greater openness. However, even if they don’t, you’re living up to your values and finding a way forward that doesn’t compromise your integrity.
I think it’s important to state that this is not about prostrating yourself before others or overindulging in humility. It is about cutting to the chase and clearing the air of emotions that are not relevant to the issue at hand. Those emotions can serve as a signal that you need to talk, but once you make the choice to interact, it’s essential to come from a responsive rather than reactive place. You will find that going through this process will—far from humiliating you—actually heighten your sense of personal value and strengthen bonds with your coworkers.