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DC and Virginia HR Consulting and Executive Coaching Newsletter - Issue #12

To Speak or Not to Speak

This newsletter is a continuation of my November newsletter which focused on difficult conversations.  This is part 2 of a 3 part series.

This newsletter is based on the book Difficult Conversations, by Stone, Patton, and Sheen.  This is one of my favorite reference books, and I go back to it often.  Last month, I talked about what makes a conversation difficult: those conversations usually involve emotion and/or challenge the identity of the participants.

The topic of this newsletter is whether to even have difficult conversations.  Before I go further, I acknowledge that there are some encounters that you just can't avoid.  When you have to deliver bad news, have an employee review, or address immediate issues, you really don't have a choice about whether to engage.  However, some encounters are by choice.  These are the issues that may have been brewing for a while, and you know that they need to be resolved eventually.

The key question is whether a conversation is the appropriate form of resolution.  Let's look at 3 examples of when a discussion is probably not a good answer.

  1. The real conflict is yours.
    Example:  Bob's manager Mike wanders through the work area every 2 or 3 days to chat with the team for a few minutes.  Mike just stops by, says "Hi", chats, answers any questions that people might have, and leaves after a few minutes.  He doesn't talk about work matters unless a team member has a question or concern.  The team reacts positively to Mike's "Management by Walking Around", and gives Mike high marks for being visible.  Bob gets extremely annoyed by the whole thing.  Despite the way the rest of the team feels, Bob fears that Mike is just there to keep tabs on everyone.  Bob's last boss was a micromanager, and he assumes that Mike will start to do the same thing.  Bob is considering raising this issue with Mike.

    There are times when the real issue at hand is completely within you.  The other person in the conversation is acting with good intention and behaving appropriately.  Rather than have a conversation, it may be better to determine why you are having this issue, and try to resolve it yourself.

    In the example above, it's obvious that Bob is overly sensitive to being trusted.  Mike is doing the things a good manager should, but it's triggering something negative in Bob.  Although Bob has a right to give feedback to Mike on his management style, it would not really help the situation for Bob to ask Mike to ignore him more!  Bob needs to resolve this issue internally, and find other ways to feel more trusted before he decides to raise it to Mike's attention.

  2. There is a better solution than talking.
    Example: Joe was an employee who needed a lot of feedback and encouragement.  He was always coming by and interrupting to tell his manager Ted what he had done, and get praised.  During any conflict, Joe was the first person in Ted's office looking for reassurance.  Ted is going crazy, and thinks that he will have to tell Joe to just leave him alone and stop being so needy.

    Sometimes conversation is not the best solution.  Sometimes, a change in behavior in other ways would be better.  Before talking, it may be best to ask internally if you are doing all of the appropriate things.  If not, it may be best to try to change a behavior yourself rather than immediately have a conflict.

    In the example above, the manager decided that he may not be doing a good enough job of providing regular feedback to Joe.  He decided that it was not unreasonable for the employee to get weekly feedback.  Ted scheduled a meeting every Friday at 9am with Ted just to catch up on the week's activities, and provide feedback and guidance.  As the meetings started to happen, the interrupts slowed to a reasonable level.

    Just to clarify, I am not talking about accommodating everything for everyone just to keep the peace.  Being walked on is not a healthy way to solve conflict.  However, before confronting a situation, it's probably prudent to determine whether you have done a reasonable amount on your end to solve the problem.  If not, it's probably a good idea to make a change before having the conversation.

  3. A piece of my mind.
    Example:  Dave and Larry are co-workers who attend a weekly staff meeting.  Larry constantly teases and picks on Dave when he presents for his spelling and grammar on slides.  Dave has never said anything, but his feelings are hurt.  He has thought over and over about what he's going to say to Bob if Bob ever spells something incorrectly.  When that happens, he's going to point it out, laugh and ridicule, and also bring up how Bob is sometimes late to the meetings, and how Bob spilled spaghetti on his pants one day.  Dave has played this out in his mind, and he is ready to attack.  Man, will that feel good!

    There are times when the anger or hurt from another person is so overwhelming that we feel the need to lash out.  Sometimes this is unplanned, but sometimes it's carefully planned (i.e. the next time I see Larry I'm going to give him a piece of my mind).  Granted, these conversations might make you feel better in the short term.  Usually however they create long term problems.  Feelings are hurt on both sides, and now further resolution is even more difficult.  Also, you let people know that you can be rattled, and in your attempt to be strong you end up appearing weak.

    Dave needs to stand up for himself.  He probably needs to tell Larry in private that the teasing bothers him and ask him to stop.  He should plan his conversation to appear reasonable and rational, and take the high road instead of flinging mud.

If those are bad reasons, what are good ones?

  1. To learn.
    Example:  Sue thinks she has a conflict with another manager (Mary) in another department.  Sue manages 5 technicians, and they have been doing work for Mary's team out of courtesy for the last year.  Someone informed Sue today that Mary is now trying to hire Sue's best technician to come work for her permanently.  Sue is angry at the news, thinking that this was a rotten way to pay her back for the favor she has been providing.

    Sometimes, the purpose of a conversation is just to learn what's going on from another perspective.  Before jumping to conclusions or getting upset, a conversation can uncover the facts.  It's the first and foremost responsibility to understand the other person's views on the situation before any other conflict begins.  Sometimes just seeking to learn early can diffuse the situation for the future.

    In the situation above, Sue went to speak with Mary.  She approached openly, and asked what was going on.  She found out Mary's side of the story, and they worked jointly on a solution (continued in example #3).

  2. To express views or feelings.
    Example  Jane was chatting with her team before a meeting about how hard they had all been working.  Debbie casually remarked that "Jane does not even need to be here.  Her family is wealthy and she really does not have to work".  Jane had confided in Debbie about her family, but had never really expected Debbie to tell anyone.  She feels that this might affect her standing in the group, and she feels betrayed by Debbie breaking confidentiality.

    It's important to express your views and feelings, especially in tight relationships.  You may not "need" an apology or acknowledgement or expect the other person to change, but bottling up issues is not healthy.  Once you have decided that an issue is affecting you (and the issues is not just your issue), it may be important to bring it into the open.

    In this case, it's important for Jane to tell Debbie that she was hurt by her betrayal of confidence.  She should express her feelings, and also explain why she didn't want this broadcast.

  3. To problem solve.
    Example:  In Example #1, Sue learned that Mary has been asked to build her own team and stop using Sue's.  Mary had no intention of hiring Sue's technician, but one of the people on Sue's team asked him if he could be considered to lead the new team.  Mary didn't know how to answer, since she didn't want to hurt Sue's organization, but also didn't want to stand in the way of someone's career desires.

    Now that facts are known, and feelings are understood, the goal can shift to problem solving.  This follows the standard approach, where both parties share ideas.  The goal is to continue the goodwill gained through the conversation and arrive at a conclusion agreeable to both parties.

    Once Sue and Mary understood the facts, they came to a reasonable answer on how to handle these situations.  They agreed to let people interview, but work together on a transition plan to help both teams.

In summary, sometimes conflicts are inevitable.  However, sometimes they are a choice.  Before launching into a tough conversation, first determine whether it really needs to happen.  It's important to consider what your goal for the conflict really is, and whether a conversation is really the optimal solution.

Next month we will conclude with a framework on how to have these difficult conversations.  Once again, read the book.

Have a safe and Happy Holiday!

Jim Bowles
James Bowles and Associate