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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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Curiosity and the Effective Leader

Some of you may remember the phrase from the National Enquirer – “enquiring minds want to know.”  However, most of you likely have not heard of positive change approach Appreciative Inquiry (AI). It starts with curiosity, as did the Enquirer, but then dramatically diverges. Curiosity, in the case of AI, did not kill the cat, but instead, increased its knowledge and propelled it to heights.

The Challenge

Meeting with “Tom” over a period of months in a coaching engagement revealed difficulty with an employee seemed to be representative of Gallup’s actively disengaged research numbers on employees — not willing to give an extra minute to work, not interested in the work, and not a “team player.”  In discussing the power of inquiry, “Tom” courageously decided to try the Appreciative approach with what he considered to be this difficult employee. Read more

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Leadership Lessons From Wicked Tuna

I don’t watch television very often, but when I do it’s more channel flipping than anything. Recently, the “dial” landed on the show Wicked Tuna.

I know, but it’s on the National Geographic channel so it must be interesting. Plus, I had questions:  1. How big are the tuna? (they’re much bigger than what’s in my StarKist can) 2. How much will they weigh? (some can be almost 500 lbs!) 3. What struggles will the crew go through? (big waves, disagreements, broken windows)

The Show

Here’s what happens on the show, and why this is but one of many leadership lessons from the Wickedest of all Tuna. Read more