Difficult conversations are always...well...difficult... Here's Sheila Heen's talk from the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit
You know those on-again, off-again relationships? I had friends in relationships like that and I swore I would never do that. Then I got into one of those relationships where I kept getting talked into giving it one more try. I wondered why I was having such a hard time negotiating myself out of this relationship. This was when I began working on how to have difficult conversations.
I kept the image of finishing this book and going home for a reading. Eventually we finished the book and went on a tour and I looked forward to the hometown reading at the end of the tour. We show up at the venue and there are 18 people there, 11 of whom are related to us. About half way through the talk my sister takes her 3 kids out the side door and we hear the 5-year-old say, “Mom, that stunk!” The older 7-year-old said, “Charlie, it was supposed to stink!” That experience has stuck with me because it reminds me of how we often feel about the difficult conversations in our lives. I’m here to tell you every one of us on this planet has difficult conversations in our lives. It’s part of being human and in relationship together. Your job as a leader is to have these conversations. How you handle them defines your leadership. The bad news is they are supposed to stink.
Think about the difficult conversations in your life. Here are some themes that were given—
--standing up for myself
--saying no and disappointing someone
--working across cultures
--telling my boss they are wrong
--helping my peer with their self-awareness
Write the name of the person you’re thinking of. The most important thing to understand is we have to look beyond what we’re actually saying to each other to what is in our internal voice. Think about your own internal voice. In difficult conversation your internal voice is turned up to loud.
(Video of Monicia and Paul—friends who are also business partners in the midst of a difficult conversation.)
The first thing you’ll notice as you listen to people’s internal voices they are busy with the same things every time. Every difficult conversation has the same underlying structure.
The story in our head is driven by a few key questions:
1) Who is right?
2) Whose fault is it? (defines the problem)
3) Why is the other person acting this way?
What do I do with the strong feelings I have? There are two more things going on. There are strong feelings and often conflicting feelings. Write down some feelings in the difficult conversation you are having.
By the time something becomes a difficult conversation we have two problems: the surface problem and the way we treat each other.
What does this say about me? At the deepest level is our identity. This colors the story. What about money? If you bring it up will you look greedy?
In my off-again, on-again relationship I wondered was I a good person? Was I being forgiving?
Two topics, two talkers, and zero listeners.
So what do we do?
1) Ask who do we each think this conversation is about? Why do we see things so differently?
1) Instead of asking whose fault it is ask what each person’s contribution was.
2) Instead of asking why are they acting this way separate intentions from impact.
Instead of blame, look at joint contribution—that’s where learning comes from. Get beyond telling and persuading to asking and exploring and trying to understand.
Remember the difference from talking at to talking to and then to talking with.
What if we could see ourselves and each other as God sees us—as people who sometimes disappoint each other but also need each other? It doesn’t guarantee we will work this out but gives a better chance.
Researchers told subjects they were going to another building to give a talk and planted someone along the way who needed help. What percentage of the subjects do you think stopped to help the person in distress? The answer is 10% stopped to help. The students they used were seminary students. The talk they were told to go give was on the parable of the Good Samaritan.
That is us—the challenge in our busy lives is to see the opportunities to walk our own talk and help someone with an important conversation. Leadership is about showing someone a better future we will co-create together.