The Doing and Being of Difficult Conversations

Years ago, I bought—and read—every book I could find about challenging conversations. Difficult Conversations, Crucial Conversations, and Fierce Conversations—all of them. Each added to my understanding of how to have (and why not to avoid) the conversations that we least want to have. I attended several workshops that focused on shifting difficult conversations into productive ones. The most intensive of these workshops was three days long and involved meticulously analyzing a single conversation that we knew we needed to have. We focused on reframing our thinking and mindset and precisely examined the impact of the words we chose for the conversation. At the end of the three days, I was able to have that conversation in a way that shifted the relationship I was working to improve. At the same time, it was painstaking and I wondered if that particular process could be consistently replicated.

Over the years, I began to design and conduct workshops on the topic of difficult conversations—including this as a core topic in any leadership program I offer. In my workshops I drew most heavily from Sheila Sheen’s (and her co-authors’) Difficult Conversations, and from her second book, Thanks for the Feedback. More recently, I added powerful ideas garnered from two wonderful books by Diane Musho Hamilton, The Zen of You and Me and Everything is Workable.

My commitment to improving—and supporting others’ improvements—at having hard-to-have conversations is premised in the belief that our ability to speak candidly, openly and with compassion allows us to create better relationships at work. And, if we can create those stronger, more open, more honest relationships, we can work more productively, with greater ease and get better results. The same is true in our personal lives, as well.

The most important thing I took away from these authors and from the work I had done was the importance of shifting from a mindset of “it’s about them” to “I’m a contributor to what is occurring.” In some way, small or large, we are missing part of the story and have a blind spot about our contribution in challenging relationships.

I also realized that to successfully transform a conversation from just plain difficult to productive and constructive, we needed to genuinely be able to hear the other person—to listen deeply, see their perspective, and shift our own, accordingly. It’s not about one person being right and the other wrong. It’s simply that we each see the world through our own eyes and, by definition, our view is limited. Bringing this awareness into a challenging conversation is essential–and not easy. It goes against our default mode of “listening to win” rather than “listening to learn.”*

Over the past few years, as I expanded my coaching toolkit to include embodied leadership, I began to rethink the way I approached, and taught, difficult conversations. Embodied leadership asks us to consciously bring our whole soma (body) and not just our heads into our work and personal lives/relationships. Wouldn’t this then require us to bring our whole soma into difficult conversations? If we are to genuinely shift our frame of mind to allow ourselves to see multiple perspectives and to respond rather than react to the things that trigger our defenses, then we need to think not only about the “doing” of the conversation, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the “being”–and that’s where the body can be an enormous resource.

Until I started doing somatic work, my preparation for a difficult conversation was almost entirely focused on the words I would use. What questions would I ask? How would I frame the conversation? What would I do to ensure that I was communicating that I, too, was a contributor and that together we were looking for a new way of seeing? I took the same approach with my clients. Both in coaching and in workshops most of the energy was on planning the “what” or the “doing” of the conversation. Using our heads.

If we expand and include the soma then we arrive at the “being” of a conversation. We attend not only to what we say—but also to how we show up energetically, physically and emotionally. The preparation we need to do to show up in a state that is open, receptive, and present is quite different from the planning of the “doing.” It’s not surprising that I missed this. In general, we have learned to be better at—and put more emphasis on—doing than being.

Growing our leadership capacity and developing as humans requires that we create a better balance. I’ve written about the distinction between complex and complicated—it is relevant here as well. When things are unpredictable or unknowable we are in the domain of complexity—and our job in complexity is to navigate, not to know where exactly we’re going (we simply can’t know.) By definition, a conversation—especially a challenging one—is complex–unpredictable. Two of the most powerful tools in complexity are openness and curiosity which come not only from our heads, but from our whole self.

When we prepare to be present and curious, then we can be prepared for the response that we didn’t expect to hear. We can navigate in the moment when the other person does not conform to our predetermined script. And, let’s be honest, no one aside from the imaginary people in our minds will ever adhere to the predetermined scripts we write. If we are unprepared for the complexity of the conversation, wed to our plan, then the instant the other person veers from our script, we are thrown—we lose center and presence. The conversation is far less likely to move forward in a meaningful or satisfying way for either person.

When we focus primarily on the doing of the conversation then we may know, intellectually, that we are contributors, but we are still likely to be hooked into responding defensively. Seeing multiple perspectives is not what we were wired to do—being reactive when we feel threatened is a more “natural” response—even if it is unhelpful. Despite our best intentions to not be hooked and defensive, it takes time and practice to respond differently. When we focus exclusively on what we are doing and don’t give equal weight to our being we aren’t resourced to be fully present and capable of navigating the complexity inherent in a challenging conversation.

So, what does this look like in practice?

It’s about putting as much, and often more, focus on the question, “How do I want to be in this conversation?” as on “What do I want to say?”  I do this by taking a moment and finding center—the process I use to center (described here) is one I learned over six years ago and has been an anchor for me ever since. Once centered, I ask myself the following questions:

  • What qualities do I want to bring to the conversation?
  • How do I want to show up?
  • How will I find that way of being before I begin the conversation? (This may involve a commitment to center before starting the conversation.)
  • How will I return to that way of being if I feel triggered during the conversation?

This process does not offer a magic bullet—it’s a practice. Like all practices, it requires repetition and reinforcement. It can be immediately helpful and when it becomes part of our way of operating it can positively impact every aspect of our professional and personal lives. Once it is ingrained in our being, and we can access this process rather than react defensively, even the challenging conversations that are not initiated by us, the ones we unexpectedly find ourselves in, will no longer be as difficult or daunting.

As I’ve embodied this practice, I’ve come to see “difficult conversation” as simply conversations. This simple, and yet not so simple shift, enables me to be curious, attentive, and open-minded while growing my relationships.

Here’s an example:

I worked with a client who needed to speak with a colleague who, based on all the data available to her, was not delivering on an important commitment. This was not the first time she’d had this experience with her colleague.

At the start of the session, we centered. After centering, and becoming more open and present, she noticed that she had never broached this topic with her colleague. Her colleague was unaware of how his actions, knowing or unknowingly, affected her. It was from this reflection and realization that my client was able to sense that her limited perspective of “this is how he’s disappointing me” only told half the story. My client then consciously set the intention to remain open and curious so that she could genuinely, and without bias, discover where things were breaking down. She made a commitment, from center, to hear his perspective, to learn more about her own contribution, and to figure out together how to move forward.

The preparation for her discussion went as follows: centering and setting intention, recognition that she is also a contributor, and committing to find center before, during, and after her conversation. She would also need to remind herself that her colleague would not follow her predetermined script and that she would not be able to control the ultimate outcome of that conversation. She felt ready to enter the conversation with genuine openness and curiosity, prepared to be surprised.

And another example:

I recently worked with a client who had to let staff go for the first time in their organization’s history. As I worked with the leadership team to prepare for these conversations, we brought the dimension of being into the process. The leaders reflected on how they wanted to be in the conversation to support the people to whom they were delivering hard news—and to support the people who were remaining. In this case, even when the words had to be quite precise, there was an opportunity to attend to how they could use the practices of centering and the emphasis on bringing their whole self into the conversation to convey the genuine compassion that they felt.

And…

Sometimes we are called upon simply to listen, to be present for another person. It is often all that is being asked of us. Our work begins and ends with the question of how we want to be. If we simply allow ourselves to be present and caring listeners, then that is enough. Our need to do or say the “right” thing or to fix a problem is often the thing that gets in the way of what is most important.

And finally…

The next time you find yourself carefully planning your words, take a step back and make sure you are also attending to how you want to be in order to best serve the intent of the conversation. And then, do that again, and again, and again.

We become what we practice.**

* See Jennifer Garvey Berger’s Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps–my favorite book of the past several years for more on this distinction (and so much more than that!!)

** Gratitude to Richard Strozzi Heckler and the teachers at the Strozzi Institute for helping me to experience the power of practice.

My series of posts exploring what I’m learning as I become a somatic coach begins here. You can also find a post here that explores ways to think about practice or, to be more precise, “micropractices” that might make this just a little easier to incorporate into an already busy life.

Creating Psychological Safety from the Inside Out

Organizations that seek to stay relevant through continuous learning and agile execution must cultivate a fearless environment that encourages speaking up. In any company that thrives in our complex and uncertain world, leaders must be listening intently, with a deep understanding that people are both the sensors who pick up signals that change is necessary and the source of creative new ideas to test and implement. Amy Edmonson, The Fearless Organization

I finished reading Amy Edmonson’s new book, The Fearless Organization, a few weeks ago. It’s about psychological safety–what it is, why it matters and how to cultivate it. As I read the book I had two alternating thoughts. At times it felt simple–almost too simple. Speaking up matters. A lot. Psychological safety is all about speaking up. On the other hand, it’s complicated–even complex. Speaking up doesn’t come easily for many people and, in organizational settings, it can be exceptionally difficult. Creating the conditions for psychological safety is an intentional act of leadership.

Edmonson first stumbled upon the importance of psychological safety while researching medical errors in hospitals. The initial results showed more errors in the teams that scored as “better.” That’s not what she expected. So she dug deeper and discovered that the better teams were willing to speak up about mistakes and address them. The less effective teams hid errors–there was a lack of psychological safety. It’s important to note that Edmonson is not presenting psychological as a silver bullet– it does not guarantee team or organizational success. Without psychological safety, however, it is much harder to succeed–to produce innovative, powerful results. So, to reiterate the first point above, psychological safety matters a great deal.

Now here’s the thing that really struck me as I read Edmondson’s book. Psychological safety could be strong in one team and weak in another–in the same hospital. Local leaders (in this case, primarily doctors) determined the level of safety. This points to the role of individual team leaders in influencing the level of safety in their teams–making it safer or less safe than the dominant culture.

Let’s go back to the simplicity and the complexity of establishing psychological safety. What is it that individual leaders can and must do to encourage their team members to speak up–to share ideas, speak about their challenges, be willing to say what they aren’t sure others really want to hear? Edmonson’s Leader’s Toolkit (Chapter 7) provides specific suggestions and practices for creating the conditions, inviting participation and responding when people speak up. (An excerpt from this chapter is available in Strategy and Business.) While this toolkit is made up of deceptively simple actions, for these actions to be effective leaders must have the capacity to execute them, and that is anything but simple.

Creating and supporting the conditions necessary for psychological safety requires the capacity to say one does not know and to listen with interest and openness to other views. It requires the ability to appreciate ideas that don’t jive with one’s often strongly-held opinions (and the willingness to hold those opinions lightly.) It requires the capacity to hear the words someone is speaking even when the delivery is poor or the timing less than perfect. It requires that we recognize that our view is one view only and that we could be wrong. It requires that mistakes and failures, even the preventable and careless ones, are discussable. (Edmonson offers up a useful taxonomy of failures.) It requires that we abandon the misbegotten and widely promoted idea that we shouldn’t bring up problems if we don’t have solutions. It requires that we make it easy for people who struggle to speak up to do so–that we solicit input from the quieter people on our teams–that we as leaders practice inquiry as much, if not more, than advocacy. It requires that we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.

These requirements demand that we look at the ways that we respond (or react), day in, day out–and honestly assess our own performance (and ask for feedback from others.) They demand that we start with ourselves and the ways that we are showing up as leaders. They demand that we develop tools to manage our state–to catch ourselves before we react defensively. They demand that we recognize the power that we have to influence the psychological health and safety of the teams we lead–that we recognize the power we have as leaders to positively or negatively influence our teams.

If you are already someone who tolerates uncertainty well, who embraces not knowing, who can listen without defensiveness and who can be vulnerable–it’s likely that your team already experiences a high level of psychological safety. It’s also likely that there’s even more you can do and that, by working on how you self-manage and self-regulate and on your relationship to not knowing and to uncertainty, that you can take that to even higher levels. And, if you read this and recognize that you are not yet there–know that you can develop these capacities. Through practice (and practices) you can develop new habits and behaviors. And if you’re not sure how you’re showing up–one of the ways to begin to increase the level of psychological safety in your team is to get curious–to have candid conversations and solicit feedback.

So take some time as we begin a new year to think about where you are now and what you can do to cultivate your capacity to support your team’s psychological safety.

Related posts:

Overcoming Your Habit Nature: Embrace Your Saboteurs provides suggestions for working with some of our more entrenched habits–including the ones that are limiting our capacity to support psychological safety.

The Age of the Uncertain Leader speaks to the necessity of embracing uncertainty and some practical ways to do just that.

 

 

 

Strong Opinions, Lightly Held

People TalkingWhat’s the key to turning a difficult conversation into a productive one? Years ago I studied with the people at Action Design–exploring this exact question. How do you have a productive conversation based on honesty, trust and transparency? How can you transform difficult conversations into opportunities for learning and understanding? The phrase “strong opinions, lightly held,” is a reminder for me of how to enter into a conversation that is difficult–or how to respond when a conversation becomes challenging.

“Strong opinions, lightly held” connects to one of the most powerful and practical distinctions I’ve ever learned–between advocacy and inquiry. Advocacy is about speaking up and inquiry is about asking questions–seeking to understand. Inquiry is about curiosity, listening and asking. While the benefits of inquiry are probably the subject of much of the leadership development work you’ve done–perhaps because it’s not all easy be an expert “inquirer”–advocacy is also important. Having a voice, expressing a view and being able to effectively express ideas is critical to effective leadership.

Expressing your view (strong opinions) while knowing that your view is just one view–and being willing to open your view up to inquiry by others (lightly held)–is one of the keys to productive, powerful conversations–and leadership. It’s one of the primary ways that difficult can become productive–and positive. Advocacy and inquiry are a polarity–both are critical, it’s not an either/or. Our work is to leverage the positive aspects of each–to speak up and also be willing to ask, to listen and also be willing to let go.

Living into “strong opinions, lightly held” is the work of a lifetime–a journey, not a destination. In recent years there’s been a host of research about our brains that demonstrates–over and over–that we are wired to crave certainty–to want to believe that we know, that we are right. (See On Being Certain by Robert Burton.) That need for certainty creates in us a false sense of knowing that blinds us to the fact that we might just be wrong. The need for certainty–and its corollary–the need to be right, ultimately get in our way, doing a disservice to the people around us, and preventing our organizations from thriving. It is part of why advocacy, rooted in a sense of knowing, can come so much more easily than inquiry. Inquiry requires that we be comfortable with not being certain that we are right, with being willing to hold open the possibility that we are the ones missing something.

It’s a hard thing to shift. We can begin by noticing when we’re holding a view tightly, when we are not asking questions or have ceased to be curious. We can notice when we are not allowing questions to be asked or making space for others to speak up. We can listen to ourselves when we say (or think) “we know” and check to see if it is really true. We can try on the language of “I believe” vs. “I know” and see what happens.

As we notice and as we make small shifts, we can work to become leaders who are clear rather than leaders who are certain, leaders for whom “strong opinions, lightly held” is an aspiration–one we are always moving towards. We can practice in every conversation. 

Updated, June, 2018.