The Conversations We Avoid — or Blow

Building truly effective relationships with employees may mean stepping out of your communication comfort zone exclamationJoe hardly made eye contact as Mary, his manager, fired questions at him about why he had failed to hit the delivery dates for a customer order. Clearly angry and frustrated, Mary blasted everything from Joe’s casual business attire to his age (29) and his habit of leaving the office at 5:30 pm sharp to spend time with his kids. But she never asked what actually happened to cause the delivery date failure. By focusing on attributes unrelated to the problem, her reprimands were unlikely to teach or motivate Joe to change or improve his work.

Harold, 35, expected to take over the business from his 70-year-old father last year. The two had discussed and agreed to the plan. But when the time came for a transition, nothing happened.  Harold waited it out for a few weeks, guessing the delay was just an oversight. Weeks turned to months with still no word from his dad. Finally, ready to explode, Harold stormed into his father’s office and demanded to know why he was not in charge. Dad, having decided Harold needed more experience, counterattacked. Harold clearly was not ready for the responsibility of running a business, dad yelled. He was too volatile and immature and would not be taking over any time soon.

 Straight talk as a learned skill

We hear much talk these days about how the younger generation — those who grew up with email, texting and phones attached to their hips — hasn’t developed the level of communications skills needed to be successful in business. But I’ve observed plenty of business professionals who came of age before these technological advances who also struggle to communicate effectively. Maybe technology isn’t the issue. Maybe our professional development opportunities, our educational systems and our family experiences fall short in offering the training, experience and reinforcement we need to learn how to communicate effectively.

In the scenarios above, Mary, Joe, Harold and Harold’s father each missed opportunities to proactively communicate in ways that would improve the business, create learning opportunities and strengthen working relationships. They let anger, frustration, and fear of feedback get in their way of an honest exchange.

Whether it’s a simple update on the status of a project or a more challenging task such as giving difficult feedback, we tend to fall back on communication patterns that feel safe.  Such ineffective communication leaves a gap in truly hearing and understanding each other. Worse yet, we fire up emotions that may damage the relationship and our trust. Productivity suffers. In all cases, the business loses.

Through my Leadership & Legacy Group coaching, I work with leaders who have built highly successful, profitable businesses yet still stumble when it comes to difficult conversations. Too often they soften or under-play the message. They leave their employees confused and not sure what action to take. Or a leader may go on the attack out of frustration, creating high levels of stress and tension that prompt employees to either lash out or withdraw. Either way — plus many variations between — is terribly ineffective.

Crafting effective messages

In Fierce Conversations, author Susan Scott tackles some of the most challenging and important types of dialogues we need to have – at work, at home and in life. She provides a framework for building your message so it’s effective and maximizes your probability of getting the results you want. There is no guarantee of getting your desired results, of course, when dealing with people, but by building a productive and effective conversation, your chances are far better.

Fierce Conversations should be required reading for all business professionals and used as a textbook in communications training programs. Following her models isn’t easy — they take us out of our comfort zones, out of our all-too familiar patterns of avoidance or lashing out. You may be tempted to declare that you shouldn’t have to do this work – you are the boss! But by taking the time to have those difficult conversations and to be clearly understood, you’re likely to see your stress levels drop, your relationships grow stronger, your bottom line improve. That’s a great yield from the simple investment in communicating clearly.