Supporting difficult conversations

A couple of years ago a colleague sat me down to have a “difficult conversation”. He was unhappy with something I was doing, and wanted to tell me about it. Ordinarily these things are particularly awkward, but this was slightly different to most. The company had, as one of its corporate values, something like “We do not flinch from telling the truth”, and when he first approached me about it he used words that echoed that line that was used so often in the organisation, “I need to have a do-not-flinch conversation with you.” I knew immediately what he was referring to.

What stayed with me most of all from that encounter was the way the company gave him the means to have the conversation. (The contents of the conversation was relatively undramatic in the end, at least compared to what I was expecting, and his concern was quickly resolved.) It was obviously something that he was a little apprehensive about, but the company’s culture made it easier for him. In this particular company people were often openly praised for demonstrating particular company values, so they were not just words on a poster.

I don’t think every organisation should have a mantra about having difficult conversations, but it certainly helped in this case. There are other ways to do it. Perhaps some semi-formal training. Perhaps a “difficult conversations week” where people are expected to raise a (very slightly) difficult subject with one other colleague, just to practise, and then share experiences. There will be many more ways, too.

Certainly, I recognised that if an organisation really wants its people to tackle difficult issues, then it can do much more than just say so—there are practical ways it can help.

Photo by Mark Barrot