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Facing the elephant in the room

We know we need to have them, we know they are valuable, we know that sooner rather than later is a better approach, and yet still we avoid them. I’m talking about those difficult conversations that we face from time to time. Some people call them courageous conversations. Others call them elephants.

Courageous conversations are the conversations we don’t want to have.  The conversations we know we should have and the ones that take courage to have.  The conversations where, more often than not, the real blocker is us.

In the workplace courageous conversations are often linked with giving feedback, especially constructive feedback. Many people dislike being the bearer of bad news and so they avoid giving people feedback, primarily because they fear how the other person may react. Some people avoid emotionally-laden conversations  at all cost, especially if there is the possibility of defensiveness or anger, preferring to keep things as drama-free as possible. So while we understand the rationale of having a courageous conversation, we get lost in our own internal thoughts and convince ourselves that things will be better if we say nothing and avoid the drama altogether.

Initiating the conversation is the hardest step but the real power behind having a courageous conversation comes from simply acknowledging the elephant in the room.

Think about these practical tips.

  1. Get in early before the problem gets too big and more difficult to manage.
  2. Be clear about what the issue is and remember that this is not an opportunity to slam dunk someone but to improve a situation.
  3. Take time to prepare for the conversation and think about the other person and how they are likely to react and what language they respond positively and negatively to.
  4. If you’re anxious about the conversation get some coaching either from a trusted colleague who’s skilled in this area or from an external coach.

Getting started

One way to kick-start a courageous conversation is to ask yourself:  how are you helping the person concerned by NOT having the conversation? Will the person continue to behave poorly and be oblivious to the impact they have on you and others and perhaps even think that what they are doing is ok? What is the worst that will happen if you have the conversation and what is the worst that will happen if you don’t have the conversation?

We see leaders avoiding courageous conversations every day but once they embrace the challenge we see conversations that transform performance and build trust and commitment. One thing is vital for any courageous conversation to have a chance of being successful…. ‘intent’.  Initiate a courageous conversation with the intention of helping a person to improve their performance, or at the very least become more self aware, and you will be more likely to have a successful outcome.

By taking a few simple steps, you can provide powerful and effective feedback to your people, and as a result, develop more of a performance culture.

  • Remind yourself that your role as a leader is to set and monitor the expectations around behaviour and performance, and to point out when people are not meeting expectations.  If you don’t do it, who else will?
  • Provide non-judgemental feedback by using the Situation/Behaviour/Impact (SBI) model.
  • Remind yourself that by providing feedback you are giving someone a gift they may never have had before (because everyone else has shied away from it) and, as a result, they have a chance to do something to improve.
  • Offer to coach and support the member of staff who wants to respond to the feedback.
  • Look for opportunities to provide positive and reinforcing feedback when the individual starts to operate in the desired way.

Now …. ask yourself, what is the courageous conversation you need to be having?


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