Is a difficult conversation holding you back?

February 15, 2021 Rosemary

Is a difficult conversation holding you back?

It’s been one of those days.

I woke up with a horrible feeling in my belly. I couldn’t identify what was wrong – everything felt wrong.

Something I said yesterday. Something someone else said today.

A problem with a family member, an issue with a colleague. The tradie who didn’t finish the job properly.

Why had I not sorted out each problem when it happened? I felt the self-judgement rising in my already uncomfortable gut as I realised there were some difficult conversations on the horizon. And who likes difficult conversations?

In my book, the Mentor Within, I say: “If I am still, if I take time in nature, if I ask myself the right questions, the right answers will emerge.” Taking my own advice, I went to my Contemplative Rock and, in the peace of nature, the right question emerged. It was simply this: ‘What can I do to make this feeling go away?’

I thought back to when I worked in a large organisation in South Africa. There were many difficult conversations to be had: the work was tough, the subject matter tougher. Some of my clients were prisoners, some were criminal justice personnel. There were confrontations with those committing human rights abuses, tough questions in media interviews and the incessant internal dynamics of a large organisation. What had I done in the past that could be applied right here and right now?

Surely making decisions and sorting out difficulties was easier in my small business in Sydney? I am my own boss – I only need to ask myself for permission – and my decisions are binding. So I set to work documenting what I had done in the past in order to learn from it and apply it.

In support meetings with peers we always ask one another: ‘What are you stuck on?’ And, unsurprisingly, it’s usually a difficult conversation that are were dreading.

Naming what is causing the block is often the first step to resolving it.

It is useful to consider three principles before having that difficult conversation.

Principle 1: Always talk with the person concerned before talking about the person concerned.

The only time we were allowed to stray from this principle was in the weekly meeting, and then only for the purpose of planning a strategy.

Principle 2: Use the win-win of a tough tasks exchange.

Whatever it is you don’t want to do is not a biggie for someone else. The problem is often bigger than Ben Hur for us, but for someone else it could be sorted quickly. So, where necessary, exchange responsibilities with someone – I’ll do your difficult thing if you do mine. A trade of sorts. A ‘tough tasks exchange.’

Principle 3: Aim for triple win.

By aiming for a win for ourselves, those around us and the world, it’s often easier than you think to find a solution that is best for everyone.  

Now you’re free to make a simple binary choice.

  1. Have the difficult conversation

Work out what to do and do it. Allow the other person to be your ‘accountability angel’, checking gently that you’ve done what you said you would do, by the time you said you would do it

2. Hand over the difficult conversation

If you really can’t face it, and you know that you won’t do it even if you commit to it, hand it over. Allow the other person to assist. The agreement here is that there are no questions asked – you just ask for the help and you get it.

You don’t want unspoken difficult conversations to gnaw at you and mess with your equilibrium. You may want to set up a weekly conversation with a colleague or associate if you don’t already have that in place, and add the ‘what are you stuck on’ question.

As I overheard a school psychologist saying to a 7-year-old the other day: ‘It’s taking up your brain space and you only have a limited amount of that. Get it out of your head so you have space for other things.’ Never a truer word said.

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