Difficult Conversations

by Barbara Buffton

Why bother?

If we are fearful of the person, the process or the outcome, we might decide to put off a difficult conversation until ‘the right time’. Unfortunately, the right time usually never comes!

When personal matters affect productivity in the workplace, they become job performance issues and have to be dealt with – and the sooner, the better.

We often underestimate our ability to handle a difficult conversation and overestimate the positive outcome of not having it in the first place.

Should you be wondering whether or not to have the conversation, there are a couple of things you can do. One is to ask yourself three questions. If the answer to each is ‘yes’, then you need to have the conversation:

  1. Does something need to be said?
  2. Does it need to be said by me?
  3. Does it need to be said by me now?

The second thing you can do is to remind yourself of the cost of inaction, by asking yourself four very powerful questions:

  • What would happen if I did have that conversation?
  • What would happen if I didn’t?
  • What wouldn’t happen if I did?
  • What wouldn’t happen if I didn’t?

These questions force us to think of the consequences of our actions – good or bad, and the risks involved. The problem is we all too often just avoid asking them of ourselves. They also help us determine the ultimate reason for the conversation – why we need to have it.


Ostriches don’t have difficult conversations

Like ostriches (or so we’re led to believe), we sometimes prefer to bury our heads in the sand and hope the situation itself will go away.

How many times does it actually go away?

How many times does it actually get worse through our inaction?

I was once editor of a journal and was waiting for various authors to send their work in. One author could not be reached once the deadline had passed. I had no inkling that she wasn’t going to make the deadline. If I had known, I could have helped her in some way or put a contingency plan into place. She was obviously fearful of what she perceived could be a difficult conversation. But it was the consequences of her sticking her head in the sand that were difficult.

If she had asked herself the four powerful questions above, she might have got in touch with me as soon as she knew she wouldn’t be able to meet the deadline.

  • What would happen if I let people know I couldn’t meet the deadline? Answer: they might be able to extend it; they might be able to get someone else to help out or they might be understanding.
  • What would happen if I didn’t let them know? Answer: they won’t know until it’s too late to do anything about it and the publication of the journal could be in jeopardy. It’s unlikely I’ll get any more work from this source, having let them down so badly. And I’ll feel bad and awkward and guilty for a very long time.
  • What wouldn’t happen if I did let them know? Answer: my reputation wouldn’t necessarily be at risk because I would have let them know in good time.
  • What wouldn’t happen if I didn’t let them know? Answer: the finishing of my article within the deadline; the ending of my bad feelings, mostly guilt and helplessness.

It’s usually worth having the difficult conversation – the only question is when.


Take the plunge

On a training course, a participant was disruptive, continually interrupting the trainer and asking for clarification about really basic stuff. She had been like this on previous courses, too, and the other participants were beginning to show their dislike of her behaviour. Side conversations were starting up and an atmosphere of unpleasantness was beginning to take over the training topic.

The trainer decided that enough was enough and that a ‘difficult conversation’ needed to take place, one he had put off having previously, through fear and embarrassment of confrontation.

So, in the first break, he led the disruptive participant to one side, took a deep breath and said ‘This isn’t working out, not for you, not for me, not for the others in the room. I think it’s best you leave’. Before he could say anything else, the woman said: ‘But I can’t help it. I’ve got Asperger’s Syndrome.’ It all then became clear in the trainer’s mind – the constant requests for explanations that were clear to every other person in the room; the way she took everything so literally; her inability to interact socially with others in the group. It all made sense now. No-one else in the organisation knew about her condition; everyone just thought she was anti-social and a pain to work with, albeit excellent at her job. Her boss kept sending her on courses hoping she’d eventually learn how to interact properly with people.

Without the difficult conversation, none of this would have become known. Knowing what he now knew, the trainer arranged to coach the participant separately in the skills and was able to keep the rest of the course flowing for the other participants.