Tough Conversations: Have ‘em or avoid ‘em??

Nobody really likes them. Yes, some are better than others in dealing with them, but they are likely not high on our most-favorite interactions list. Tough conversations make us uncomfortable. Maybe we even don’t know what to say or how to say it. We don’t always know how to handle them without either damaging a currently-positive relationship or escalating a crappy one.

Either one, our druthers are to not have to deal with them. Unfortunately, that’s seldom an option. Unlike fine wine, good scotches and well-kept cigars (I’m simply listing my relevant vices), the conflict behind the need for those conversations does not get better with age.

Unfortunately, until AI makes us all obsolete, people are in the mix; if people are in the mix, there will be conflict. If conflict is in the mix, we’ll be having difficult conversations.

So then, what to do? Books are written and workshops are held to address how best to have these discussions. Various glossy hardbacks are rife with advice on how to conduct these particularly onerous chats. What if, instead of getting better at them, we figured out how to not have them in the first place? Try this instead:

Avoid difficult conversations by having difficult conversations.

Say whaaat? Kevin, your aforementioned vices are causing you to say crazy things… if I don’t like having those conversations to begin with, why the hell would I intentionally create them??

Simply put: brief, preemptive discussions can prevent having to deal with those bigger, difficult conversations.

A story… I was doing a C-level 360 survey recently, and in following up on an earlier comment I asked the person I was interviewing “So, how well does this executive deal with really tough conversations—you know, serious conflict?” The person paused for several seconds, which is usually a precursor to something bad or negative. Instead, he surprised me…

“Actually, he does a really good job of avoiding having to have those difficult conversations.”

Well, I must say that caught me a bit off-guard. “So, he simply avoids having them altogether,” I asked?

“No, he avoids having to have them,” he replied.

Well, I’m just a public-school graduate from south Texas… I told him to please explain. He went on to explain to me, in thoughtful detail, how this executive has the near-term, immediate conversations with others that prevents things from escalating to unhealthy conflict or those dreaded difficult conversations.

“When performance or behavior is off, or some expectation is unmet, this executive deals with it then, while it’s simply feedback. Instead of waiting until things build up and emotions come into play, he just has those simple, brief conversations—positive and negative—on a regular basis.”

In doing so, he seldom must deal with what most people would call a difficult conversation.

He doesn’t avoid having them, per se… he avoids having to have them.

Hmmm, avoiding a problem instead of dealing with it after it’s created? That’s some cutting-edge thinking right there.

And it’s damned good advice for us all.