For the last few months, I have been laser focused on Team Performance. Nothing impacts team performance more than having truthful conversation. In my coaching and consulting work it is something I do well. It is not easy! I have also watched leaders that I respect struggle to step into truthful conversations. I know why and in this post I want to offer tips that will help you to push through the fear to hold more effective truthful conversations.
So why do leaders struggle to hold challenging and truthful conversations? We don’t want to mess up or hurt the person’s feelings. If we wait long enough and use the right words (97% of the time it is constructive feedback) then the myth is that the conversation will feel good for everyone. Wrong! The reality is that how the conversation feels in the moment is irrelevant. Just accept this fact. These conversations often don’t feel good. Despite the fact that these conversations can be awkward and uncomfortable, they are key to improving performance.
I won’t promise to eliminate the fear associated with having truthful conversations. I will give you a strategy that works. More important, I will help you to improve and track your progress. Honest conversations are challenging because we don’t hold them often. Another challenge is how people react is totally out of our control. Here is a simple framework to manage your side of the conversation, bolster confidence and track progress.
# 1 Clear Purpose
Be clear on why you are talking to the person. Perhaps you have a leader who is overbearing and does not give others space to voice their ideas and thoughts. You’ve watched meetings shut down and you know she is totally clueless about her impact. In this scenario the clear purpose is awareness. Your goal is not to change her behavior. That is her job alone. Your goal is only to give her the objective information about what you see. That clear purpose should be a benefit to the person, the team, or relationship. If you can’t see a clear purpose for the truthful conversation, then don’t hold it.
#2 Clear Intentions
Let’s stick with the boss scenario. A clear intention in the conversation is you remaining calm and respectful. Another possibility is to demonstrate leadership and compassion. The clear intention is unique to you and your leadership style. Honoring your intention is the only metric of success in a truthful conversation. It is the only part that you can control.
# 3 Speak Objectively
Like administering an injection, this part should be done quickly, confidently, and competently. State your truth objectively from your perspective. In our example, it would sound like this: Sarah, I know our team’s performance is important to you. I’ve observed in the last few meetings that when someone shares an opinion you often debate their perspective. The impact that I have noticed is that people stop speaking up in front of you. This means that we may not be getting the best ideas or honesty. In your preparation, work on this statement until you can make it as concise, honest, and objective as possible. Once you state your truth objectively, be quiet and let the person process what you’ve said.
# 4 Embrace Awkwardness
Now that you’ve objectively stated your truth, remain quiet. Expect awkward silence, weird body language, and uncomfortable emotions. The awkwardness is normal. Feedback and truth challenges our self-image. This does not feel good. Watching a person stew, squirm, debate, and process is awkward. Remember your intentions. Staying calm. Being compassionate. Demonstrating leadership. Your intentions will help you navigate past strong emotional reactions.
# 5 Summarize
A concise summary serves two purposes: First, it moves past the awkwardness. It cuts through the emotion by focusing on the facts. Secondly, it provides a transition. It could be a transition to another topic or to the close of the conversation. Using our scenario, it would sound like this: Thank you for really hearing me. I believe by giving us more space to state our opinions, the team will generate better options. Thank you for your openness to feedback. Can we shift gears unless you have questions or comments about this?
# 6 Self-Reflection
The pathway to improvement in challenging conversations (timely, objective, and holding your intentions) is through self-reflection. Evaluate these conversations by what you did. Did you clearly state the purpose? Were your intentions held? What could you do better in the future? Don’t judge yourself by their reaction because it is out of your control.
You may never like holding truthful conversations. It may always feel difficult. As a leader you don’t have a choice. Facing these tough conversations is a big part of the role. If you continue to follow these guidelines, you will get better and results will improve. Go embrace the awkwardness now.