My relationship with Corporate America has been wonderful, not because it's been easy and fun the whole time, but because of what it has taught me. I started out at CHANEL and continued to chug along through various jobs until I landed at Goldman Sachs in the Investment Banking Division. I know. It's not a popular name to be throwing around these days, but I will say that it was extremely interesting to go from Fashion Avenue to Wall Street. Yet however diverse and extraordinary a string of experiences it was, one thing remained true whether I was navigating the creativity that abounds in a fashion environment or the cognitive intensity that accompanies high finance. And that is to say that while industries do vary, people really don't -- at least, not when it comes to organizational communication and behavior. Reactions to hurtful things are shared, fear is universal and ego is everywhere.
Yes, it's true. Fighting on the frontlines taught me a lot about business and people. But mostly I learned that the workplace is in dire need of a no-nonsense, cut-to-the chase approach to communicating that is appropriately formulated with more humanity and less BS. It was that general observation, coupled with a conversation that I'd had with a colleague about his inability to discuss a problem with his coworkers regarding the employee refrigerator, that prompted me to write my book, Surviving Dreaded Conversations: Talk Through Any Difficult Situation at Work.
In talking with this colleague, I realized that "difficult" was a relative term and uniquely defined by every person based on his or her own individual perception of negative. My colleague said that he would rather die than tell his coworkers that he thought they should remove their rotting sandwiches from the refrigerator because they had begun to grow mold. Meanwhile, I saw nothing wrong with, or negative about, this conversation at all.
So, my first question was, "What exactly made it so scary?" And my second question was, "Why do certain conversations have the power to cause so much dread, anxiety, and fear in certain people?"
Conflict? Despite popular opinion, I don't think so.
Confrontation? Same here. It assumes that conversations are deemed difficult because of an implicit fight, which is not always true, not by any means.
Rejection? Probably, to some extent.
Emotion? Most likely.
Some combination of all of the above? Definitely.
The point is that our definition of "difficult" when it comes to dreaded conversations is ill defined. Not everyone fears conflict or confrontation, and not everyone handles rejection and emotion the same way. That aside, we do seem to collectively share the discomfort of these exchanges, not because we are all afraid of the same thing, but because on some level we all have our own personal reasons for dreading the conversations we dread. I argue that it is because of what we learned, or more aptly put, what we didn't learn.
In a misguided attempt to be polite and gain social acceptance, society dictates that, "Silence is golden," "Children should be seen and not heard," and "The truth hurts." The notion that the truth hurts is lost on me, for I don't believe that it could ever possibly hurt more than a lie. But nonetheless, as a result, we are deprived of the opportunity to develop communication skills that enable us to express what we think and how we feel in real time. It is archaic indeed, but it is also a reality within which we seem trapped.
Now, fast-forward to the workforce where people are thrown into situations where they have to say something to someone whom they probably don't know that well. No practice. No dress rehearsal. No previous experience. Well, of course, these circumstances make an unpleasant conversation both difficult and dreaded. Doing something new and unfamiliar is always awkward. Not only have the appropriate "muscles" never been developed, but they also atrophy over time with every conversation that is put off, ignored or sugarcoated. In other words, it gets worse (and harder) as careers advance if folks don't dive in at some point and start learning by doing.
But it's not only individuals who benefit from veracity. Organizations need it too. The business environment today is hyper-competitive and in a constant state of flux, now more than ever. Companies simply cannot afford to pay the price of a verbally constipated workforce, nor will they reach their potential if employees are afraid to speak the truth. Besides, offering someone the truth is a gift, a giving, selfless gift and one that is extremely rare and hard to come by.
One way to get started is to prepare and organize, then practice.
First, prepare. Isolate the main point or points you need to make. Write them down.
Second, organize. Set up your conversation in your head with the same three-part structure used in drama. Set up. Conflict. Resolution.
Third, practice. Rehearse your key points and consider any adjustments you may need to make in your own personal style and delivery.
In the meantime, here are some quick tips straight from the trenches that will help you get through your next difficult conversation at work.
1. Use the 80/20 rule when balancing facts with feelings. In professional situations when it comes to emotion, less is more.
2. Process your emotions privately so that you are free to discuss them calmly and with a sense of neutrality.
3. Provide yourself with an opportunity to think rationally and logically and convert those emotions into thoughts and words.
4. Allow time beforehand to work through your own process.
5. Remember not to torture yourself. It will most likely not be as bad as you think.
6. Use an approach and words that come naturally to you.
7. Check your ego at the door.
8. Get to the point but don't rush.
9. Allow your humanistic side to show without getting too personal.
10. Blame no one else.
11. Make no excuses.
12. Don't panic. Remain still and calm. If there is an emotional storm, it will pass - most of the time.
13. If the conversation starts to escalate on the other hand, walk away and reschedule.
14. Be flexible. Don't vest all of your hopes in one specific outcome.
15. Stumble if you must. You'll learn from it and improve for the next time.
In all, the better you get, the less dependent on these steps you will be, because like so many things in life, practice makes proficiency.