Necessary, tough conversations often fail. Here’s 8 reasons why.

In great work-places, it’s okay to have tough conversations. In fact, not just okay, it’s an essential habit. Negativity thrives in the spaces that honesty and openness vacate. Bad cultures build where people learn that they can’t speak up, that others won’t speak up, or that under-performance and problems get swept under the rug.

A key starting point for good conversation and culture is to talk about difficult issues and tackle problems early. But it’s hard to confront a problem and improve things.

Improvement requires listening – on both sides. It requires rapport – trust and confidence in each other. If successful, everyone accepts their contribution to the issue and resolves to take responsibility to learn and improve.

But it’s tough to have these conversations and we often avoid the issue, reject any contribution or refuse to take action.

Here’s five signs that your conversation partner is not engaging and owning the issue. (the first three of these come originally from ‘Fierce Conversations‘, I believe.)

  1. Deflect: they raise an issue about someone else (or something else), instead of focusing on this issue and their contribution to it. “But he did something even worse” or “You’re picking on me” or “Why are you talking about this when the real issue is…”
  2. Deny: they flat out refuse to accept that they contributed to the issue. “That’s just not true, I didn’t do that” or “Yes, I did that, but I don’t agree that it’s a sign of poor performance
  3. Defend: they insist that their actions were justified, reasonable or inevitable. “Well, she had it coming.” or “I think anyone would have done the same” or “I have a temper, there’s nothing I can do”
  4. Diminish: they claim that the issue is minor, irrelevant, unremarkable or that their contribution was insignificant. “I think I was barely late, and only a couple of times at that” or “I don’t know why you think this is such a big deal
  5. Disengage: they ‘check out’ of the conversation, refusing to engage. “Fine, have we finished?” or “Okay, I get it, I’m sorry, can we move on?”

All five tactics move us away from the important discussion and prevent ownership and resolution. They’re easy to spot when someone else seems to be evading the issue, but much harder to spot and deal with when we use the same tactics to avoid admitting our own contribution to an issue.

Too many difficult conversations fail to even begin. We use the same five tactics in our own head to justify not having ‘the talk’.

  • “There’s something more important going on right now, best save my energy” or “let’s not rock the boat right now”
  • “Maybe it didn’t really happen”
  • “I mean, they’re only human, I should cut them some slack”
  • “I guess it’s not that bad really”
  • “This procrastination feels really important right now!”

Other times, we do set up the meeting, but then go wrong by:

  • pussyfooting around with small-talk and niceties and never actually have the conversation that’s needed,
  • being so incredibly vague, unspecific and rushed that the other person never really understands what it’s about, or
  • back-peddling: hastily blurting out the issue and then immediately showering the other person with praise and excuses plus diminishing the severity of the issue, all in order to reduce our own feelings of discomfort.

With so many reasons that the discussion can go off track, it’s no surprise that necessary, tough conversations frequently fail to happen.

In a future blog, I’ll discuss some keys to successful tough conversations. In the meantime, I recommend the following books:

  • Radical Candor, by Kim Scott
  • Fierce Conversations, by Susan Scott
  • Discussing the undiscussable by William Noonan

All the above reflections are my attempt to synthesise some of my own learning, reading and experiences in order to help me clarify my own thoughts. I want to publicly express my gratitude to Nicole Fowles (@nfowles5) whose advice, coaching and book recommendations have been transformational! Thank you also to Kathryn Morgan (@KLMorgan_2) for getting me enthusiastic about Fierce Conversations. Please do leave questions, ideas or suggestions for improvement in the comments below!

4 Replies to “Necessary, tough conversations often fail. Here’s 8 reasons why.”

  1. A precise and clean description that demonstrates exactly what happens when we struggle to engage in the conversation. Thank you for this, David.

  2. Hi David. These examples are painfully familiar! Have you come across the principles of Nonviolent Communication? They contain some powerful mechanisms for overcoming the issues you identify here. In particular, the importance of articulating your own needs and understanding the other person’s, and making clear and non-threatening requests to move a situation forward in a way that recognises both.

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