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vickyVicky Ross provides expert advice on managing those awkward conservations we all have at work

Having the skill to manage difficult conversations is important because the effects of not having conversations holds back change and progress. The biggest reason why so many people struggle with dealing with difficult conversations is because they are not prepared. They are not clear about what the problem is about and, crucially, what outcome they want from the situation. This leads them to feel insecure and lack confidence, so having the conversation seems really hard.

Fears holds us back

The cause of people holding back is usually down to one thing – the biggest fear of humankind – the fear of rejection. The clash is often the unspoken message that says ‘your perception of life is wrong!’. People struggle to understand why someone does not see their point of view. They worry that they will hurt the other person and they will appear mean, or that they will somehow experience the ultimate rejection in work in that their job tenure or promotion prospects will be affected.

When we are rejected we feel unloved. Although no one goes to work to feel love, love will appear in different forms in the work place. It shows up as respect, as being validated, treated with integrity and with kindness.

Focussing on the problem

Instead of thinking of the problem at hand and how to solve it, people experiencing difficulties at work often think about themselves and the discomfort they are experiencing. They secretly wish they didn’t have to deal with their difficulties and that these troubles would magically disappear. The unconscious focus is not what the problem is, but it nevertheless influences their behaviour. If another person doesn’t agree with their point of view, it means on the unconscious level that they are rejecting them and not supporting their way of thinking. 

The second issue is lack of clarity. A lack of clarity about the specific nature of the problem and therefore how to resolve it, creates anxiety. This is in part a concern about how to get the other person to see things from your point of view. The real issue at hand has been replaced by the way it makes one feel. Ego is fighting to be heard and validated and the whole point of the conversation falls away, leaving only a personal battleground.

In schools our decisions should always revolve around getting the best outcomes for the young people in our care, balanced with the need to support and develop the adults who manage their learning.

In facing a tricky conversation, most people will focus on the discomfort at the idea of having that conversation rather than the reason it exists and what is the best way forward. Entering the conversation unprepared, with poor clarity concerning both the outcome being sought and the process to be followed, causes emotional disruption. As human beings we don’t like uncertainty.

Practical suggestions

How can we put this knowledge into practice when preparing for a difficult conversation at work?

First, it is vital to be clear about  what our needs are and what outcome we are looking for from the conversation. It is also important to know what you negotiable and non-negotiable elements are in the conversation.

Then, here is a guideline for having a conversation that is likely to lead to a win-win situation:

  • Build rapport by seeking common ground and matching body language and listen to any emotional responses without interrupting or judging them – resistance comes down when rapport is there and people feel heard
  • Seek first to understand then to be understood, find out what their needs are and what is important to them
  • Feed back what they have said so that you can get check you have understood
  • Then state what your needs and outcomes are
  • Ask how can we move forward so that all of our needs are considered

Vicky is running a course on managing challenging conversations in London 27th November.  Click this link and email us for further details or to make a booking: