This week Ian discusses how to approach those Difficult Conversations.

In this episode Ian explains:

  • Why conversations are more difficult during a pandemic crisis
  • How you need to get “Comfortable with Uncomfortable”
  • How your Mindset influences the conversation outcome
  • The opportunity in the Difficult

…And how – approached correctly – there is often an even better way

Full Transcription below:

If you were starting a business today, what problem would you be setting out to solve and why? This was a question that was asked by Richard Branson, no less, on a piece of social media feed that came to my attention recently. The recipient of the question was Simon Sinek, he of “The Golden Circle” and “Start With Why” fame. And his response, after a pause, was, “the problem I’d try to solve is how we relate to each other”. He talked about where things are now. Where we are in a society that is judgmental. That’s extremely poor at listening. Where things are black and white. There’s no room for gray areas. And where ‘me being right’ means that ‘you must be wrong’.

He went on to talk about the need for empathy. The ability to give and receive feedback. And he concluded that we are very poor at difficult conversations. He gave the example of when the Black Lives Matter movement moved into protest, leaders around the world stood by and, largely, did nothing. Not because they’re bad people, but simply because they don’t know how to have a difficult conversation about a sensitive topic, like race.

It seems we need to talk about conversations.

The first thing to observe and to witnesses is this difficulty in having the right conversations is very, very human. And it’s very particular to the present situation. The present situation is characterized, as we’ve talked about ad nauseum, by unpredictability, uncertainty, and chaos. And when people are in that state, one of the things that is most under threat as a primal fear is the fear that they will lose control. And when there’s very, very little that we can control, the human fear of losing control over my opinion, or my point of view, all it’s going to do is it’s going to make me cling more tightly to that, less that gets undermined or taken away. Because it’s one of the very few things that I’ve got certainty around at this moment in time in the world out there.

It’s no coincidence that this is true during a pandemic. Where people are on edge, patience is low, people’s fuses are shorter, and communication becomes extra difficult. It’s exactly the same that we witnessed during the financial crash 12 years ago. Same set of conditions, coming from a different challenge or set of chaos. And there are two choices. In this situation as a leader, we can either avoid having the difficult conversation at all. Or we can brutally, heavy handedly impose a unilateral solution because of our position. How well leaders engaged with difficult conversations, we experienced, became the foundation of how their reputation was built or broken during the last crash.

So let’s talk about conversations. I’m going to preface it by saying the conversations, and difficult ones, that I’m about to talk about presuppose that there is a need to stay in relationship with the person. So I’m not talking about having a difficult conversation with somebody who just cuts you up on the freeway. I’m talking about the conversations that we need to have with our peers, with our bosses, with our direct reports, with our suppliers, and our clients, and with our families. Where there’s something at stake, and there’s a vested interest on both sides in staying in relationship.

The first thing to acknowledge is that difficult conversations are not easy. When you know you’ve got a point of view or a feeling, and somebody on the other side has got something which is the opposite, and you know you’ve got to have that discussion. Then it is not an area of comfort. Which is why it’s very, very human when we are in a situation of discomfort where people systematically avoid the conversation. By doing that, all it does is it exacerbates things, and the problem only grows worse. So it’s no solution, but to acknowledge getting comfortable with uncomfortable, the CrossFit slogan, is very much part of hosting or having a difficult conversation.

Let me talk about preparation. What typically happens when people have opposing views, and they know it, and they know they’ve got to discuss it is; me on my side, how I typically prepare is I go out and I find all the facts, all the information, and all the data that will support my point of view. So I am arsenalling up. Whilst on the other side, the other person is doing exactly the same.

If we approach a conversation, a difficult one, in this manner, what we’re doing is we are preparing for war. And we’re literally creating a no man’s land in the gap between you and the other person. Where the shelling goes from one side to the other until somebody withdraws or is defeated.

Does this sound familiar?

So the beginning of hosting a difficult conversation begins with the preparation. Instead of having the objective of winning the conversation or the argument or the debate, the objective should be shifted to something else. If you commit to focusing on keeping both yourself and the other person in the game of the conversation that will completely change the nature of the conversation and the subsequent output. So rather than committing to trying to be right and emerge victorious, if, on the other hand, we just simply focus on how do I keep myself and the other person in the game that’s going to lead to a far better outcome in terms of mindset and how we approach it.

Many people in their hierarchy, as they approach difficult conversations, either consciously or unconsciously prioritize being right over getting the best outcome, and pay a heavy price ultimately for the privilege.

So one other point to consider is that in order for a difficult conversation to be effective, it needs to include both sides, and the contribution from both sides, and the considerations of what’s meaningful to both sides.  Because if not, what you end up with is, at best, compliance on the other person’s side as opposed to commitment, and, at worst, a feeling of resentment, which will smoulder and continue and the problem will continue to resurface in many, many ways. We talked about Residue in previous episodes.

So how do you do that? Well, from your side, what you need to do to draw their side of the bridge into the conversation box is you need to be curious. You need to genuinely listen to their side to understand what’s fully meaningful for them on their side of the bridge.

The difficulty with doing this when there’s tension or there’s complexity or there’s emotion is the feeling that if I listen and make the other person feel understood that by extension, that means I must have to agree. And that is not the case. By simply being curious, by simply giving the person the ability to articulate themselves so that they feel heard or that their side is fully acknowledged, by simply doing that without agreement, what you’re doing is you are creating capacity. Limbically, you are keeping them in the game.  By simply doing that it enables their Green or Thinking Brain to be active. And what it does is it grants the opportunity and the capacity for them to then hear your side. If they don’t feel heard, if they don’t feel acknowledged, if they don’t feel your concern and appreciation for what’s on their side, without prejudice or agreement, they will not grant you the courtesy of listening to your side and the rut will continue.

I’ve yet to see a conversation in 25 years of practice whereby applying these simple principles, the conversation or the insight didn’t emerge of things that people didn’t see on either side of the bridge that were master camouflaged. That instead of option A or option B, that some version of option C did not emerge.

Applying the principles yields a far better outcome in terms of solution or solutions. In addition to that, it also gives a far higher level of commitment to whatever that solution is. The final payoff is that in these 5% Moments of difficult conversations, trust, and the trust neurochemistry, is built and relationships deepen.

John Gottman, professor at the University of Washington, runs a clinic where couples go on weekend retreats and he can predict to a 96% accuracy  whether the couple will be still an intimate relationship in five years time.  And it’s based on one ingredient or one criteria. And that is how skilfully they air their grievances. Or in other words, how gracefully they have a row.

Back to Richard Branson. If you were starting a business today, what problem would you be setting out to solve and why? If it’s about improving on how we relate to one another, well, we already did this. After the last crash and out of the ashes, we created GreenLine Conversations, which is a methodology to do just this.

You can find out more by visiting if you’re curious.

Meantime, stay sane, stay safe, stay connected.

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