We Have to Talk: How to Not Avoid a Difficult Conversation


We Have to Talk: How to Not Avoid a Difficult Conversation

It’s been one of those days.

I woke up with a horrible feeling in my belly. I couldn’t identify what was wrong – everything felt wrong.

Something I said yesterday. Something someone else said today.

A problem with a family member, an issue with a colleague. The tradie who didn’t finish the job properly.

Why had I not sorted out each problem when it happened? I felt the self-judgement rising in my already uncomfortable gut as I realised there were some difficult conversations on the horizon. And who likes difficult conversations?

In my book, The Mentor Within, I say: “If I am still, if I take time in nature, if I ask myself the right questions, the right answers will emerge.” Taking my own advice, I went to my Contemplative Rock and in the peace of nature, the right question emerged. It was simply this: ‘What can I do to make this feeling go away?

I thought back to when I worked in a large organisation in South Africa. There were many difficult conversations to be had: the work was tough, the subject matter tougher. Some of my clients were prisoners, some were criminal justice personnel. There were confrontations with those committing human rights abuses, tough questions in media interviews and the incessant internal dynamics of a large organisation. What had I done then that could be applied right here and right now?

Surely making decisions and sorting out difficulties was easier in my Small Business in Sydney? I am my own boss – I only need to ask myself for permission – and my decisions are binding. So I set to work documenting what I had done in the past in order to learn from it.

In my weekly meetings with a colleague, we always asked the same question at the end of the meeting: ‘What are you stuck on?’ And, unsurprisingly, it was usually a difficult conversation that we were dreading. Naming what was causing the block was the first step to resolving it. We could then choose one of two actions, but not before reminding ourselves of three principles that guided our thinking.

Principle 1

Always talk with the person concerned before talking about the person concerned.

The only time we were allowed to stray from this principle was in the weekly meeting, and then only for the purpose of planning a strategy.

Principle 2

Whatever it is you don’t want to do is not a biggie for someone else.

We realised that the problem was often bigger than Ben Hur for us, but for someone else it could be sorted quickly. So, where necessary, we exchanged responsibilities – I’ll do your difficult thing if you do mine. A trade of sorts. A tough tasks exchange.

Principle 3

Aim for triple win.

By aiming for a win for ourselves, those around us and the world, we could often find a solution that was best for everyone.

We were then free to make a simple binary choice to complete those difficult conversations.

1. Have the difficult conversation.

Work out what to do and do it. Allow the other person to be your ‘accountability angel’, checking gently that you’ve done what you said you would do, by the time you said you would do it.

2. Hand over the difficult conversation.

If you really can’t face it, and you know that you won’t do it even if you commit to it, hand it over. Allow the other person to assist. The agreement here is that there are no questions asked – you just ask for the help and you get it.

You don’t want unspoken difficult conversations to gnaw at you and mess with your equilibrium. You may want to set up a weekly conversation with a colleague or associate if you don’t already have that in place, and add the ‘what are you stuck on’ question.

As I overheard a school psychologist saying to a 7-year-old the other day: “It’s taking up your brain space and you only have a limited amount of that. Get it out of your head so you have space for other things.”

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  • Linda

    Great article Rosemary. Some excellent tips on getting out of your own way to get the hard conversations done. We can always have these conversations coming from a genuine space, keeping them and ourselves authentic.

    • Rosemary

      Yes, that is essential. I believe that they can even create Triple Wins – where you, the other person and everyone around you benefits. I’ll write on that soon.

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