Crucial conversations

BBQ columnist Lindiwe Mkhondo

Employees do not always necessarily get along. Can you handle these difficult talks without getting nervous or angry?

Your boss often raises his or her voice. He or she has a habit of walking up behind you while you are on the phone or working at your computer, and then just stands there until you are finished with whatever you are doing. Or you constantly have to deal with a co-worker who is difficult to work with. Employees do not always necessarily get along. It’s a fact. It’s a reality.

There are many explosive and sometimes personal scenarios we have to deal with – like wanting to ask your boss for a promotion, or not being sure how to tell a colleague that her perfume makes you ill.

Can you handle these difficult talks without getting nervous or angry? We all recognise the symptoms: raised voices, racing hearts, sweaty palms and stress that won't go away.

These are situations that we all have had to deal with at some point or another - and they are usually tough ones. When things go wrong, it's hard to deal with them easily, much less talk about them. We fear an explosive outburst. Or we expect we will just be wasting our time, or in the end get fired. But if things aren't working, we have to be able to talk. When there is a lot at stake -a job, a salary, a career, and a relationship- we need to be able to engage in that difficult but crucial conversation. So why do we tend to avoid crucial conversations in the work place? In most cases people avoid it out of fear. People fear being victimised for raising issues. They are afraid to challenge and hold others accountable. People fear how the other person will react. Sometimes it is the fear of one’s inadequacy such as “I don’t know where to start”.

Some resort to corridor talk because they feel safer to express views to those they feel safe with rather than those they fear. Unfortunately avoiding and failure to hold crucial conversations is detrimental to productivity, work quality, teamwork and relationships.

When we fail to communicate we enter a vicious fight or flight cycle. We embark on a culture of silence. We know there is a problem, but we don’t face it directly. We ignore it, or become sarcastic. We resort to using humour, while we are kept awake at night because of stress. Secondly, avoiding crucial conversations can lead to violence. One can get angry, abusive, and insulting and sometimes even treat the person with disrespect, while avoiding to deal with the problem.

So how can we hold crucial conversations in a positive, productive way? Learning about how people communicate, takes practice, but it is possible for everyone to learn that skill.

The first major task to accomplish is to "know what you really, really want". As an executive coach, I help others have these "crucial conversations." One of the ways is to help people focus on the positive. We help people figure out what it is that they really, really want.

Difficult conversations require positive, constructive talk. Constructive talk preserves a positive relationship between the parties, while enabling them to address problems, face challenges, negotiate resolutions and evaluate outcomes.

Through executive coaching people can learn essential tools to hold crucial conversations, to give and receive feedback. Through role plays, a coach will empower you to grasp the power within you to address issues confidently in order to live according to your values.

In a recent team coaching workshop with executives I asked them to use the following framework:

  • “I appreciate you as a colleague and believe your strengths and greatest contribution to our team are…”;
  • “I believe you can contribute more to this team by considering the following things...;” and
  • “I commit to support you.”

This framework allows for an opportunity to give feedback without feeling attacked, instead finding time to validate and affirm those around you so that they feel valued. Taking the time to share your observations in an empathetic way takes away your fear or their fear.

However we look at it, and regardless the outcome, crucial conversations in the workplace are tough but essential – and confronting the issues at hand is a very important to achieve ultimate job satisfaction.

Lindiwe Mkhondo


Lindiwe Mkhondo is an executive coach and practicing psychologist attached to Change Partners.

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Issue 83


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