As a Cultural Psychologist, I often get invited into organisations big and small to fix communication and relational issues relating to leadership and culture – issues that are hampering desired results. In this article, I will introduce you to the first two keys that will help you master great foundations for difficult conversations.

Jason and Linda* consulted me for an issue they were facing. They were business partners in a small business in Sydney that sold medical device supplies. They were also husband and wife. The pair had about 24 employees but at the time I met with them, Linda was concerned that they were losing good staff because, while Jason was the CEO and had great business acumen, the way he gave feedback to staff was appalling.

Statistically, each conversation failure costs your business $7,500 and seven day’s work ( 2018)  . In Jason’s case it could have been more expensive.

The pair brought their leadership team of six to attend one of my Difficult Conversations live trainings. Jason admitted that he would often think he had solved a problem, only to find the employee he had spoken to had gone off to Linda either crying or threatening to resign. He did not really understand the damage he was doing.

What made matters worse, is that Linda hated conflict and with the double relationship of marriage and business this made it difficult to discuss the issues. Linda was the marketing manager, not HR and it was chewing up a lot of her time as well as keeping her awake at night that the sales team were not happy and may walk out. Her inability to speak up was possibly worse because she knew she had an issue and was sitting on important information.

In 2017 I published the book Emotional Judo®: Communication Skills to Handle Difficult Conversations and Boost Emotional Intelligence. I chose that topic because over the preceding 14 years that I had been teaching leaders, managers and business owners, this skillset was most often nominated as the most valuable take-away by participants in my various programs.

I am not a martial artist. I chose a martial art as the metaphor because the way judo manages energy is similar to the way people who are good at difficult conversations manage their own and others’ emotions. Also, judo in Japanese means the “gentle way”.

When the book became a best seller on Amazon for 18 months and got written up in (online business magazine) as one of the top 12 Emotional Intelligence books to read before you hit 50 it showed me how hungry people are to get these skills.

Gate Crashers and the Uninvited

Over the past 25 years I have taught these skills, I have found that there are two general areas people fit into when it comes to having difficult conversations.

Like Jason, blunt, (potentially aggressive) lacking empathy, and no idea of how they come across to others. These are whom I call Gate Crashers. Then there are people like Linda. They are often likely to sympathise in difficult situations, rather than empathise, which means they are likely to get triggered into their own disempowering feelings. They are often afraid of conflict and are then reluctant or not confident to say what needs to be said. This set of behaviours is called Uninvited.

The Costs

Both ways of behaving can cause huge problems for businesses: poor culture, loss of good staff, difficulty hiring good staff, mistakes that flow over to the customer, arguing with customers or being run around by customers, impact on reputation. The list goes on, but in the end, it costs time and money!

The problem is people coming from the Uninvited space know they have a problem but are sometimes reluctant to do anything about it – they say, Hey, I’ve got this far I can survive. And “survive” they do, but “thrive” they usually don’t. What’s more, they often don’t realise the actual financial cost and opportunity cost associated with this behaviour. They prioritise their short-term feelings over their long-term health and prosperity.

As business leaders and owners, they often have loyal but under-developed staff who may not take initiative and accountability.

People coming from Gate Crasher are more likely to be the driving force that gets an organisation happening. They have therefore been rewarded for driving behaviour and often will have people say yes to their face because disagreement and discussion is a scary prospect. As a result, they may be unaware of the true effect of their behaviour on others. They can get aggressive when outcomes do not meet their expectations, or the Gate Crasher leader may consider more control and direction is the answer.

Gate Crasher behaviour sometimes gets good shorter-term results, but they often lose key staff, and at crucial stress filled times their staff may also not step up to the plate. This is often because the Gate Crasher has inadvertently bred a blame avoidance culture. People will avoid taking responsibility for fear of getting blamed.

Some financial costs of this behaviour are lost productivity, staff rehiring, and legal costs. Sometimes Gate Crasher leaders never grow past being a small business because the leader cannot let go of control.

Being adept at having difficult conversations does not lie on a continuum between Gate Crasher and Uninvited. It is a different set of behaviours altogether.

Many people consider those who are good at difficult conversations to have an inherent attribute; they are just born with the talent.

The fact is, that like any human endeavour done well, there are underlying structures that will help you excel. People who master difficult conversations have learned and practiced these communication structures. And anybody can.

Different situations call for different structures. Gate Crashers often need structures that will help them connect to people while still being firm. The Uninvited need structures to aid their confidence, manage their anxiety and keep conflict at bay.

The structures need to be simple and memorable, because when anxiety or frustration comes up during a difficult conversation, you want to have the skillset there rolling off your tongue.

So, what are the two keys to help you master?

  1. Acknowledge and take ownership of where you are at and what it is costing you and your business. Put a dollar figure next to it. Until you do this, you will most likely intellectualise getting better at difficult conversations rather than making a conscious effort to change your behaviour and master the emotions at hand.
  2. Significance and Positioning Awareness. This is a concept a bit like gravity. It was always there but until Newton pointed it out few people would consider it.

Significance and Positioning exists in every relationship you have. In fact, while you are reading this article, it is happening in our relationship despite me not being with you physically. It is just more pronounced if we are in a face to face or verbal (phone) relationship.

It is based on one of the six human needs from Human Needs Psychology combined with the ingrained human behaviour of positioning.

We all have a need to feel significant, some more than others. But even the person who prefers belonging (another human need) over significance, still appreciates being valued and acknowledged as a contributor to a team. Being valued and acknowledged are examples of significance.

Positioning means we position ourselves or are positioned by others in every relationship we have. What we position (or accept when others do it to us) is our level of significance in that particular relationship at that particular time.

Significance does not automatically happen because you are the CEO, Chair, or the business owner. It happens based on context.  The fact that you are reading this now, means you are giving me significance. You don’t have to stop being the CEO. You might have more money than me. You might have more degrees than me. All those things are just contexts and are irrelevant to the context of the educator/learner context that is occurring in this article at this moment.

In difficult conversations, out of our conscious awareness, we often feel like we have lost, or are about to lose, our significance. We perceive the other person has said or done something that diminishes our significance. Or we avoid having the conversation because we don’t know how to broach an issue without it potentially threatening the other person’s significance and it turning ugly.

So, what happened with Jason and Linda?

Jason wasn’t without skill. He could sell, and so he knew how to give others significance, though even that was a little difficult for him sometimes.

The issue is that when he was talking to staff, he only seemed to rely on one context – CEO/ employee. In other words, I pay the wages/you follow my direction! He needed to be more flexible in his approach and learn tools to manage significance in his relationships.

Linda needed to gain confidence and develop skills to broach important but potentially contentious issues, especially with Jason.

The breakthrough came, when they both learned the 4-part simple and effective structure that creates greater understanding of and between people. This is a process, called the Significance Scaffold, that allowed Jason to understand the situation and behave differently in his encounters. It also allowed Linda to feel safer speaking up.

Both of them also learned the simple structures that helped them manage the emotional space and significance between them and others.

A great weight was lifted both personally and professionally in their relationship. Their business thrived and the working environment – culture – became one of support, open contribution, and collaboration.

*Names have been changed for confidentiality