Difficult Conversations - if you avoid them like the plague here are some steps toward a cure

by Betsy Butterick, The Coaches' Coach & Communication Specialist

The most frequent barrier I’ve observed when working with teams on their communication is avoidance of or inability to engage in conflict and confrontation. It’s a plague on success to which no one is immune - head coaches, assistant coaches, players, administrators - and from which programs suffer unnecessarily. I offer the following article as an antidote to the afflicted who find themselves in need of a cure.

There's an exercise I like to do in workshops where I ask participants to raise one arm above their head and point at the ceiling with one finger. I then ask them to start drawing clockwise circles on the ceiling. Once they start, I ask them to keep pointing up and drawing clockwise circles as they slowly drop their elbow, bringing their hand down in front of their eyes, and then below their chin. When they get below their chin I ask, "Are you still going clockwise?" (Try it! The answer is no, and the reason is that your perspective changed. The exercise started by looking at the circles from below, but finished by looking at them from above).

The point here is that when we change our perspective we can have an entirely different experience. If you find yourself fearful of or outright avoiding difficult conversations then changing your perspective around conflict is where we should start. For myself, reframing conflict as "caring conversation" – a conversation I need to have with someone because I care about them - was the beginning of a new relationship with something that many people fear.

The goal as you reframe what conflict means to you is to get to a point where the consequences of not having difficult conversations outweigh your fear of having them. Often the most difficult things to say are also the most important. (Imagine being a doctor and not telling a patient that they have a life-threatening disease because you didn't want them to be upset). That's an extreme example but you can scale it back to situations we encounter every day...

Conflict feels shitty. And, manure fertilizes what would otherwise be ordinary dirt into a nutrient rich place where good things can grow. Challenge yourself to see conflict for what it is - emotionally charged conversation which can either feel like crap or can be opportunities to nurture relationships, build trust, and connect with others in a meaningful way.

Difficult conversations are usually difficult because they involve high emotions on one or both sides. When engaging in a difficult conversation, make things easier by taking the emotion out of it as much as possible. Stick to facts instead of opinions. If you criticize, criticize the behavior, never the person. Use "I" statements in an effort to keep the recipient from closing off immediately or unnecessarily.

The balance to taking the emotion out is to keep the humanity in. During difficult conversations it is important to make the person you’re conversing with feel seen, valued and appreciated. When appropriate, genuinely acknowledge the work they have done, or their effort or intention or whatever it is that you observed them trying to do well (even if they've failed).

Often difficult conversations are challenging because people cling so tightly to their perspective or their side of the story. Whenever appropriate, share your interpretation and then check for congruency. Statements like, "If I'm understanding correctly, what you're saying is ____" or "What I'm hearing you say is _____. Is that right?" Give ample space for the other person to explain but also to feel understood. [You don't have to agree with them, but you do need to make them feel that they've been heard].

As for time and place, the best advice I can offer is to intentionally create space for the conversation to occur. Ask the person you’d like to speak with when they would have a few minutes to chat about something that's been on your mind. Ideally pick an open space to have the conversation – a quiet place outdoors or in a room with lots of natural light. Take steps to remove any physical barriers between yourself and the other person; instead of sitting behind your desk, move your chair to sit on the same side or alongside the other. Once you’ve minimized distractions, barriers, and time constraints around an important conversation its much easier to have open dialogue.

From there, entering into dialogue that allows for mutual contribution toward next steps is what typically results in a positive outcome for all involved.

Coaches, if you’d like to develop your individual skills around engaging in difficult conversations for positive outcome or have me work with your team in this regard, let’s connect. Thanks for reading!