Friday review: Have the conversation you don’t want to have

It’s deeply human instinct to want to be liked or respected.  Most of us work hard to create team cohesion and we prefer making people feel good.  But the conversations we’re not having are crucial to realistically sound organizations.  New York Times Editor Adam Bryant devotes a full chapter to having “adult conversations” in his new book, Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation.  CEO, who he interviews every week for his column, The Corner Office, tell him this is one of the most important sources of culture – a force that builds up or undermines workplaces.

The Adult Conversation
“And close the door behind you…”

We avoid these conversations because we’re fearful of the response.  Maybe we’re hopeful that what we’ve noticed is an anomaly. Or we may even be concerned that we have a bias that’s making us less than objective.  What about the team member who refuses to involve a crucial person in another department.  The person who treats your team members to condescending comments in meetings.  A peer’s selective efforts to collaborate.   Badmouthing clients.  Not keeping commitments.  By now, you may be thinking of the person who does “that thing.”  She or he is the one you want to have a an adult conversation with.

Let’s talk

It’s Friday.  Today is probably not the day to hold the conversation.  But it’s a great day to plan it, preparing to talk next week.

  • What is the conversation you don’t want to have?  With whom?
  • What do you think it’s about?  This is your perspective.  Remember it’s limited, by definition.
  • What have you observed?  Be specific for your sake and theirs.
  • Assume that this conversation is going to make you uncomfortable and them feel threatened, at least at the outset.  How can you set a neutral, inquiring tone?

Some ideas for how to plan and approach I’d-rather-not conversations:

  • Ask questions.  Listen rather than arguing whether the answers are true, false, or otherwise.
  • Listen reflectively by paraphrasing and confirming what you both say.
  • Listen for assumptions and state them explicitly:  “So your assumption when you criticized him was that not taking action was a case of failing to do his assignment.  Am I getting that right?”
  • Be prepared to have your mind changed.  You do not need to dispense with your initial concern, but new information may put the behavior in a different light.  Their understanding of your interpretation may do the same.
  • Oh, and don’t forget that you can find ways to say that having these conversations makes you uncomfortable, but that there are important issues you think make it worthwhile to discuss this topic.

You know the conversation you’re not having.  Let me know how it went.

Read an HBR interview with Bryant about the themes of his book.

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