Author: elainesuess

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Leaders, Have That Conversation

In working with a group of high potential leaders recently, they shared that one of the top areas of concern for them was navigating conflict/difficult conversations.

It’s true. More often than not, when a conversation feels like it will be uncomfortable, people put it off. Or, they avoid it altogether. And, this is not just a challenge for up and coming leaders, but often company presidents and C-level leaders.

So, what to do about it?

  • First, getting in the right frame of mind about it can help.
  • Second, believing you can become more comfortable with the uncomfortable will help.
  • Third, making a commitment to building your conversational muscles can positively impact work relationships and your business.

The Cost of Avoidance

If you’re a research hound or facts and figures kind of leader, here are research results on the costs of avoiding or not having a difficult conversation:

“Employees waste an average of $1500 and an 8-hour workday for every conversation they avoid or don’t have.” Additionally, respondents shared that they may ruminate about these types of conversations for more than 6 months! (Source: VitalSmarts)

All that ruminating sounds draining just thinking about it. And, it saps a lot of energy that could be used elsewhere in the business.

Have the Conversation

So, how to recapture that well of energy and have the conversation you may be tempted to avoid?

-We can take the advice of Bob Newhart acting as a counselor in his TV show when he says “Just Stop It,” but that likely won’t work.

-We can tell ourselves to “Just Do It,” but if we’re avoiding the conversation in the first place, appealing to the Nike swoosh will likely not help much either.

-Instead, consider the following:

1.    Try to get clear on why you’re uncomfortable or putting off the conversation. Maybe you feel like you don’t have the words to begin the conversation, you’re not sure about the likelihood of getting the outcome you’d like, or maybe a previous experience with the individual didn’t go so well? There are many reasons, but getting clear around what’s keeping you from moving forward is a great first step.

2.    You can likely reframe the way you’re thinking about it. A client once shared that it felt like every difficult conversation was an “ultimatum conversation.” On reframing, she started thinking about difficult conversations as discussions, not ultimatums, and she became more comfortable. Starting with this reframe and a positive brain will help you and the other individual have a successful dialogue.

3.    Depending on the level of importance, schedule a meeting to have the conversation at a time that is convenient for both (many people are not good off the cuff, especially with a difficult conversation). More structure can help.

4.    Don’t let time slip away between an issue that needs to be addressed and the discussion about it. Otherwise, it can feel more difficult, it takes more energy, and worse, issues can grow more complex. To schedule something by phone, say something as simple as; “Hey, I’d like to check in with you about X this afternoon.” Then, express your positive intent so you can keep your employee/colleague from entering the “fight, flight or freeze” zone. It’s hard to reassure via email. Phone or in person is best, even to set up a short meeting for an uncomfortable conversation.

5.    From a strategic standpoint, think about how you want to start the conversation and what your goal is. If you’ll be giving what feels like difficult feedback, please throw out the “feedback sandwich.” People usually appreciate a direct approach, even when it doesn’t feel great in the moment. Be direct, and caring, as much as possible, but not “blunt.” (I often hear people describe themselves as blunt. Direct works. Blunt doesn’t.)

6.    Start the conversation with an open mind and ramp up your listening skills. An open mind and sharp listening skills help you fill in blind spots, as you may hear perspectives you were not previously aware of. You will then be able to speak with a broader understanding, and make sure you are heard. You can lead with something like “I want to talk with you about your work on project X. What are your thoughts about it?” or, “I want to share an observation with you about your work on project X.” or, “I’ve noticed that your work on this project is not aligning with what we agreed upon…”

7.    As the discussion progresses, you can inquire about how the individual is processing the discussion. “How do you see it?” “What are your thoughts about this,” or, “What direction should we move in from here?” Regardless, listen, make sure your message is clear by confirming understanding, and that you address the situation directly.

8.    If accountability is in the mix, close the discussion by confirming you are both on the same page, and identify commitments or forward steps.

There are many scenarios and approaches for these types of discussions. While these examples may not fit like a glove, they can help you think more strategically about the conversations you need to have.

Have the conversations. Tackle thorny business issues. Recapture energy and use it elsewhere.

Just Do It. 😉

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Breathing As A Strategy

It sounds simple; breathing. In and out, and we’re alive and showing up.

But while most of us are fortunate enough to do this every day (and I heartily recommend it) without much fanfare, many leaders are missing an opportunity to use breathing as a tool to be more effective.


How It Works

 There is plenty of research that shows how breathing can help us be better leaders. Here are just a few examples.


  • helps us decrease stress and regulate the stress hormone cortisol (so we can access our executive brain for our best thinking)
  • increases optimism (every business outcome improves when our brains are positive…we make better decisions and are more creative etc.,)
  • strengthens our ability to regulate our emotions (important at all times, and especially in those times we are giving difficult feedback or in uncomfortable conversations)
  • reduces impulsivity (hold on to that email that may not be the best approach)
  • can actually help us change and regulate our emotions (so we can connect with others and communicate in ways that are most effective)

The Strategy

Read more

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Why We Shouldn’t Be Giving Advice

The ability to communicate well impacts everything we do at work. Expertise in what I call Conversational Leadership extends even beyond work.

“The art of communication is the language of leadership.” James Humes

A critical element of Conversational Leadership is whether you’re most often asking questions or giving advice.

Advice As Pain

While I don’t have the research reference to share with you, a friend who studies the brain recently shared with me that giving advice lights up the same area of the brain that pain does. Ouch!

advice Read more

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False Harmony and Teams

Harmony at the Keyboard

My Grammy played piano for a living when there were supper clubs and people dressed to the nines to go out on the town. She was a wizard on both the piano and organ and enjoyed sharing her immeasurable talent.

Harmony for Grammy came in the combination of the black and white keys, chords and notes, use of the stops and pulls on the organ, and the impressive management of the pedals…especially those organ pedals.

I remember Grammy playing with great purpose, energy and joy. Hers was a job with a lot of flurry and motion.  And harmony. Her music was first rate.

Harmony and Teams

We know what harmony sounds like on the keyboard and at the symphony, but what does it sound like for teams in the workplace?

How about a quiz to test it out:

Which of following teams is likely high performingin committed, accountable and delivers results?

Team A:  This team gets along perfectly with no disagreements, they move smoothly through meeting agendas, and any difficult discussions are generally had outside of the meetings. They seem harmonious.

Team B:  This team has diverse views that are encouraged and often expressed in the meetings. The courage (from encourage) to raise concerns and differing views has been honed over time. The invitation to engage has been underpinned with the trust that has been intentionally developed.


 Which team do you want to be on?

 You already know the answer because:

  •  You’re on one of these teams
  •  You lead one of these teams
  •  You played on a sports team
  •  You learned about this at home
  •  You’re just plain smart

Let’s look at the teams.

False Harmony

Team A – There’s not much information about the team in my example, but this team likely has what Patrick Lencioni calls False Harmony. At a glance, it seems like this team gets along because there are no disagreements. The problem, however, is that there are no disagreements because there is a lack of trust and people are not willing to share openly. Because they don’t share openly with one another in their meetings, commitment, accountability and results don’t follow as they should.

The best teams invite diverse and opposing views. Done well, the team communicates skillfully, and is positive, innovative, and more productive.

Teams Playing In Sync

Team B – Teams that can professionally and respectfully disagree do so because they have taken time to build vulnerability-based trust, so that even when they disagree they are able to express themselves—and respect diverse opinions. They don’t have to be right.

  • When one team member has a different view than another (and diverse experiences and views are sought out on high performing teams), she expresses her viewpoint with the company goals in mind, not advocating for her own goals.
  • When a team member thinks a decision should go one way and the leader ultimately decides to go a different route, having expressed his viewpoint, the team member agrees to support the decision in both words and action.
  • When team members understand one another’s communication preferences and see the strengths in each other despite disagreement, teams effectively move toward organizational goals.

Researcher and author Judith Glaser shares five steps to elevating conversations on teams, which can lead to harmony.

  1. Creating safety and transparency
  2. Building relationships
  3. Listening to understand
  4. Focusing on shared success
  5. Testing assumptions and telling the truth with candor and caring

Without knowing all the details, you might wish to focus on these, then measure the improvements in your teamwork.

Harmony In Organizations

Healthy and harmonious cultures are made up of healthy teams, with real harmony, not false harmony.

When leaders and teams are intentional about moving the bar on teams, the same purpose, energy (and even joy!) that came out of the hands of my Grammy, show up.

First-rate outcomes are the result.


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Keeping Your Employee On The Bus

One of your employees or direct reports does not seem to be on the right bus. We’ll call him Employee. He has said he’s aligned with the company’s values, and he is a hard worker, but his behaviors do not seem to match up with the company values, and oftentimes he doesn’t do the right work.

Plus, his communication style often offends other employees and he unprofessionally and in strong language tells his supervisor he’s wrong in front of customers.

There are other things going on, but that’s the heart of it. A supervisor, who we’ll call Supervisor, thinks it’s time to get Employee off the bus.

What If You Could?

But, what if you could keep an employee like this on the bus? What if the employee could change? What if he could contribute fully and work productively with his colleagues and supervisor instead of continuing with this current ineffective approach? Read more