Difficult Conversations Part 1

Difficult Conversations Part 1

Holding a conversation for which you believe the content will upset the listener evokes the concept of a difficult conversation. Difficult because the speaker often assumes the news will be difficult for the receiver to hear. And so the conversation also becomes labelled as difficult for the speaker to know how best to frame what they need to say to cause the least discomfort for the listener. 

In such situations, the manager may make assumptions about the intellectual and emotional intelligence of the listener, guess how the listener will react and think of a number of (usually negative) reasons why the listener will react that way. Usually the manager will blame the listener for not being emotionally intelligent enough to accept the feedback being given. The manager may label the listener as ‘stubborn’, ‘lacking insight’, ‘not accepting of feedback’ etc. Allowing oneself to ‘get caught’ in this internal narrative keeps the manager in a state that is commonly known as being ‘below the line’. From this view point, the manager could easily assume that it wouldn’t matter what or how they deliver the message, the listener will be upset anyway. However, I think this situation still plays on the mind of the manager.

Entering the meeting in this state of being, the manager now has two narratives in their mind. One is the feedback message they are planning to deliver verbally and the other is the ‘blame’ narrative that is known to the manager and already recounted numerous times in their mind.

Once the both parties meet, it is extremely important that the speaker does not project their own sense of discomfort onto the listener. And usually the more the manager tries not to do this, the more the listener feels uncomfortable.

As the manager is delivering the message, if the listener then does or says anything that confirms the internal narrative in the mind of the manager, this narrative starts to play in parallel with the verbal message being delivered. But this narrative, although unspoken doesn’t stay in the manager’s mind. It drives what is being said by the manager and how they are saying it. It impacts on the manager’s body language, tone of voice and pace of delivery. And the listener ‘hears’ it. The listener ‘hears’ this message louder than they do the verbal message and usually their focus becomes mostly on the unspoken message.

This is where the hidden agenda can be found – in the mind of the speaker. The listener can hear it and although they don’t know exactly what it is they believe they can guess it pretty accurately. We know this is an assumption but without the manager being transparent about the hidden agenda – this assumption is all the listener has to make sense of what is going on. Of course the manager won’t be transparent about their internal narrative because it is negatively weighted against the listener. 

Now the listener is noticeably uncomfortable and this also confirms the manager’s internal narrative.

This type of conversation is difficult for both parties. Of course it doesn’t have to be that way. If you are looking for tips to better manage a difficult conversation, look out for our next blog on this subject matter and contact us at Workplace Harmony Solutions to find out more about training and 1-1 executive coaching options.

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About the Author

Catherine Gillespie brings a wealth of skill to her clients. With particular expertise in teaching communication and workplace conflict resolution skills, Catherine has made a marked difference to the organisations she has worked with. She empowers teams and managers to adopt constructive styles that support harmony, productivity and progress in the workplace.