Slaying That Age-Old Beast - 'The Difficult Conversation'

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How do you feel when you hear the term ‘difficult conversation’?

If you have ever been on the delivery end, or  receiving end of a ‘difficult conversation’, you may experience a visceral memory of how you felt in the lead up, during, and immediately afterwards.

Speaking at the 5th Queensland Public Sector Women in Leadership Summit, this issue of ‘difficult conversations’ resonated across all participants.

Mention the term ‘difficult conversation’ and people get a knowing look in their eye - the unspoken acknowledgement that this  beast has been around, often untethered, for longer than any of us have been in the workforce.

So how do we rid our workplaces of these potentially devastating beasts?

Is there a quick fix?  Perhaps a “cookie cutter” approach that we can apply across all individuals, situations and workplaces?

Sadly no. Just as each of us are unique, the conversations we have with each other when things are going wrong, or threatening to derail are unique.

What is it about these particular conversations that makes them so diabolical?  Why are we still struggling to have caring and candid conversations as the need arises?

The culprit is our limbic system - our primitive brain is where the genesis of the problem resides. It houses the amygdala - with its hair-trigger threat response that in turn releases the stress hormone, cortisol and our hippocampus, the repository of our core emotional memories.  

Transforming the ‘difficult conversations’ beast is a journey for every workplace.  As a beginning point, research tells us that empathy is central to successful conversations in our workplaces and of course, it is an essential leadership skill.  

As you explore this area further, you might read Prudy Grouguechon’s article:  Empathy is an Essential Leadership Skill in Forbes

And, before exploring the depths of Empathy with Brene Brown, take a quick and accessible dip: Brene Brown on Empathy.  

Empathy requires a level of selflessness - how do we suspend blame, judgement and ‘knowing’ so we can place ourselves in the place of the other person? How do we open up a space for them and ourselves to be vulnerable as we explore the issues?

Brene Brown points out that accountability requires vulnerability.

Vulnerability requires that we feel safe.  As leaders, more than ever before, we must draw on the soft skills as we transform the conversations in our workplaces from ‘difficult’ to ‘developmental’.  It’s a journey.  

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