I was sitting with a new group recently. We got on the topic of uncomfortable conversations. People react in a variety of interesting ways to them. Those reactions reflect hard wiring, personality, and life experiences, as well as the culture of your organization. It started a conversation among this new group about what it takes to stay at the table.
Which comes first: the chicken or the egg?
In a team meeting, the manager unexpectedly calls a team member out for not completing a task. After the surprise attack, the manager moves on to something else. This immediately causes some emotional response in that team member, probably ranging from hurt to embarrassed to furious.
This is not an example of fostering a culture where people want to stay at the table. To do that, the manager could have handled the need to hold that team member accountable in one of several other ways. They could have set the expectation ahead of time that there would be accountability at this meeting. They could have asked questions to draw out an update, rather than slinging an accusation that put the other person on the defense. Those are just two examples.
Regardless of the approach the manager took, the team member may have still had a reaction in the moment driven by emotion. Some team members seem to go looking for fights. Others will go to elaborate lengths to avoid difficult interactions. And when either are caught off guard, it feels like an attack.
How do you stay at the table?
Building a team culture around staying at the table and engaging with one another until we find resolution is the only way to help everyone navigate uncomfortable conversations better. Here are a few tactical things you can try in your team that might prove useful:
- Ask more questions. Whether you’re the manager or the team member in the example above, asking questions can be an effective way to gain better understanding. Of anything. And everything. The more open-ended, the better.
- Clarify expectations. Bonus points if you can create clear expectations right up front. But even if you’ve landed in a difficult conversation, it’s not too late. Use questions to help you clarify what’s expected. Be willing to clearly state what you’re expecting.
- Take a deep breath and embrace the discomfort. You’ll be okay. It won’t last forever. And if you’re not willing to be uncomfortable, how will you be able to grow or change? Remember, “growth and comfort do not coexist” (from Ginni Rometty, former CEO of IBM).
We must find better ways of building productive conflict into our cultures. It helps no one when the goal is peace and harmony at work. That’s for your private life. Healthy conflict draws out what’s really going on and makes space for brainstorming where to go next. And we all need to stay at the table for that kind of interaction more often.