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Difficult Conversations: What Do You Contribute?

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When it comes to navigating difficult conversations, frankly, I’d rather not. It’s exhausting trying to figure out how to approach someone about something you’d prefer not to discuss. Considering the pace at which most of our work worlds are operating these days, if you ignore something, it often doesn’t take too long before it’s forgotten. So why bother?

Except…that you miss the opportunity to make things work better going forward. You don’t get perspective on what transpired or what people truly think about an issue. Further, ignoring the conversations you would rather not have is a missed professional development opportunity because we all contribute to the circumstances precipitating these discussions. One of the first things you can do to prepare for one of these interactions is to consider what you arrive with, i.e., your baggage.

A couple of examples of the “baggage” we all bring to difficult conversations include:

Values 

Often, a disagreement or disconnect between parties is fundamentally about values. When there is a clash of values, it is helpful to identify where they are not in sync so the conversation can start in the right place. When faced with a difficult conversation, it is easy to get distracted with something that happened or was said, when, in fact, the issue is a very basic difference of opinion between people as to what is important.

Perspectives     

I like to call these Mental Models. Others refer to them as paradigms, frames of reference, or beliefs. These are the filters through which we experience our environment and how we assign meaning to what we experience. These perspectives are the stories we tell ourselves, our reality, and how we make sense of what is around us. They include shortcuts we take to understand what we encounter through our senses. We need mental models to function, but they can constrain us in subtle ways that we are not always aware of.

All parties’ values and perspectives are part of the context for difficult conversations. As an example, if you need to talk to a team member about a performance issue affecting your department, your values and perspectives significantly impact how you approach that conversation. You may value individual competence and excellence above other characteristics. Your perspective may be that anyone who can’t get their work done quickly with a high degree of excellence is not worth keeping on the team. That’s OK. Those are fine values and a reasonable perspective.

Put Yourself In Their Shoes

Successfully navigating this conversation must include consideration of the team member’s values and perspective, which may not be aligned with yours. It may be that they value a positive attitude and teamwork above other characteristics. Their perspective may be that those who can’t work well with others and who don’t take the initiative to collaborate are short-changing themselves and their organizations. That is OK, too. Those are also fine values and a reasonable perspective.

In this example, if you approach this conversation by first taking stock of your values and perspective and acknowledge that the other person’s actions may be predicated on different values and perspectives, you can make the conversation easier for both of you. Rather than highlighting how the team member has failed and therefore needs to be let go, you may be able to start with identifying where your values and perspectives are misaligned. From there, the conversation can lead to exploring options, such as how the team member may be better suited to a different role to enable them to capitalize on their strengths. Or maybe they will come to realize that the team is not a right fit for them.

Everyone brings values and perspectives (and other elements) with them when engaging in conversations of any kind. Awareness of your own can help identify sources of difficult conversations that will help you understand what your discussion is really about. From there, a difficult conversation can lead to a shared understanding, common ground, and an opportunity to find a way forward. Together.

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