Stop Avoiding Difficult Conversations

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Although addressing tough conversations when you’re angry is rarely a good idea, damage can also be done by putting off those challenging discussions. Consider these scenarios:

Joe hates confrontation, and will be the first to admit it. He avoids taking or returning phone calls when he thinks there is even a remote possibility that they might be unpleasant. He commits to doing things he doesn’t want to do, and sometimes doesn’t do the things he commits to. Joe is mostly described as a really nice guy, but people closest to him get upset and frustrated by the results of his failure to follow through, and they find themselves caught in the middle between Joe and the other people he fails to deal with or lets down. Is Joe really being a nice guy? Joe needs to accept responsibility for his own interactions and obligations.

Susan is generally defensive and emotional, and likes to engage in discussions of how she is wronged by others. You cringe whenever you have to deal with her because you don’t expect a positive outcome. You try not to engage in conversation with her, but when there seems to be no choice, you try to either say nothing or humor her. Susan gets upset and says you are being patronizing when you humor her, making you one of the people she thinks are mistreating her. But by saying nothing she often concludes you agree with whatever she is saying, which in a workplace situation can be problematic. Maybe you have less to lose by trying to be tactfully honest with her?

Mike seems to be contrary for the sake of it, which irritates you to the point where you’d rather avoid interacting with him. However, his passive-aggressive behavior also manifests itself as repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks for which he is responsible. As an employer or supervisor, do your best not to argue or lose your cool, and try to meet regularly to set specific and detailed goals that make your expectations very clear.

Diane appears to thrive on conflict, and unlike Mike, there is very little that is passive about her approach. You usually hear her long before she enters the room. If you are someone who never engages in conflict, you will probably not do well interacting with Diane, unless you happen to find her behavior amusing or interesting. If you really enjoy conflict, you’ll probably butt heads, and you may view each other as rivals. But let’s assume you are somewhere in between, and have determined that participating in arguments with Diane is not helpful. If you are able to let Diane know, diplomatically and logically if possible, that you are open to discussing issues, she just might surprise you. 

Ben wants to avoid being pushy by having repetitive discussions of performance problems with his employees, because he fears it will negatively affect the employees’ attitudes and job performance. Consequently, the problems don’t get resolved and Ben’s frustration grows, leading to him losing his temper. Because Ben has recently become aware of his part in this dynamic, maybe he can begin to change it. Remember that both parties bear some responsibility for their relationship problems. 

Pam hired her brother Tom to work in a vacant position in her small but growing business. Tom didn’t have as much related experience as Pam would have preferred, but she thought it might be better to hire someone she knew instead of taking a chance on an unknown person. Pam would also save time in placing ads and interviewing, plus her brother was unemployed. Nearly two years later, Tom was still unable to perform the job well. He was having attendance problems, and had become a drain on the businesses finances. These issues caused staff meetings and family gatherings to be strained.  And Pam knew that her credibility with the other employees had declined. She finally let Tom go and everyone is happier now that he has a different job. Pam wished she’d acted sooner, but let’s face it – it can be tough to fire people close to us.

I’m sure you can come up with other types of examples from your own experiences that have been invaluable to you. There are many important life lessons we can take from such examples, including:
• Avoiding difficult conversations may lead to the very problems you’re trying to prevent, or can create bigger ones;
• Communicating expectations clearly can help avert misunderstandings;
• Acting sooner and incorporating patience, active listening techniques, honesty, tact and forethought will get you better results;
• Failure to act can be costly in a multitude of ways.  

Look for upcoming articles entitled, 16 Classic Communication Mistakes, What Can You Do When Communication Fails? and Active Listening Techniques for more ideas on how to better handle those difficult conversations.

Adam Irby