Why we need to talk (and how we can)

Having been a consultant psychologist for nearly 20 years, I observe many leaders and managers facing communication challenges. Here are some of the comments I’ve heard from clients over the years:

“We can talk but we can’t dialogue”

“We tend to talk about each other rather than to each other”

“All we do is talk!”

Just because people are talking doesn’t mean that they’re communicating. As the old saying goes, ‘Two monologues do not make a dialogue.’ In two decades of team coaching, not a session goes by without someone concluding that “it’s all about communication, really.”

There are many topics that managers find challenging to talk about. These include:

  • Giving someone feedback about what’s not working
  • Letting someone know they haven’t got the job/promotion/assignment
  • Asking for something that you really want such as a pay rise or perk
  • Giving someone feedback about what’s not working
  • Letting someone know they haven’t got the job/promotion/assignment
  • Asking for something that you really want such as a pay rise or perk
  • Giving someone feedback about what’s not working
  • Letting someone know they haven’t got the job/promotion/assignment
  • Asking for something that you really want such as a pay rise or perk
  • Challenging upwards due to a blind spot
  • Delivering bad news about a team’s performance to senior leaders
  • Telling a supplier they you’re ending their contract
  • The real purpose of a team or organization beyond making money

Given that many managers know that better communication is the difference that makes the difference, why are difficult conversations such a pervasive issue? Here are three common reasons I’ve seen among the leaders I’ve worked with and some suggestions to find a way through.

  1. “It’s not the way we do things around here”

Research has indicated that in organisations 70% of managers avoid having difficult conversations. This leads to poor decision-making, a cynical atmosphere that rots communication, and people competing rather than collaborating.

This pattern of not-talking is compounded by senior leaders who avoid or mess up difficult conversations. One of the truths of being a leader is that you’re always a role model, whether you like it or not. What you do you give others permission to do. What you fail to do, you give others permission not to do.

All of this makes sense. Learning how to navigate ‘boardroom psychology’ is one of the trickiest aspects of a leader’s role. Think about this: If you’re ‘on withhold’ and not speaking out, how can you expect the people you lead to behave any differently? One leader I worked with identified that he wanted to improve listening in his team. Tom said:

“Some team members listen but don’t actually hear what others are saying so they fail to understand the consequences of their actions beyond the next obvious milestone.”

Tom decided to listen more himself. Instead of jumping in with his own opinion, he challenged himself to replace his assertion with a question. This can be as simple as saying “What makes you say that?”, “Tell me more. I’m curious about the bit when you said…”

When someone gives an opposing view, the temptation is often to jump right in. But when, in a high-energy moment, we can be responsive rather than reactive it keeps the conversation on track rather than derailing it.

2. “We don’t have time”

“People are stacked” a CEO said to me recently. Her team was trapped in firefighting. They dealt with the urgent-but-not-important and struggled to find time for the important-but-not-urgent. Many conversations that would really add value to a business fall into the latter category including:

  • Articulating a compelling purpose for a team or organisation
  • Giving constructive feedback to colleagues
  • Identifying performance metrics for a team
  • Improving relationships with critical stakeholders such as Non-Executive Directors
  • Understanding perceptions of inequalities in the organisation better
  • Discussing complex change to resolution

One of the ironies of not making time for difficult conversations is that it perpetuates the viscous cycle of not having time to talk. We can see this clearly in the case of dealing with under performance.

The Future Foundation, commissioned by SHL, surveyed 700 executives across seven countries including the US, UK and India to look at ‘The hidden cost of poor people management.’ They found that managers in the US spend an average of 34 days per year dealing with poor performance. This figure rises to 41 days per year in larger organisations (where the turnover is above $8.5 m.)

Imagine if you got back seven or even eight weeks of your time each year. That’s a staggering amount of time saved. What value-adding work would you be able to do with this freed-up time and energy? Would you finally get round to writing that strategy paper, go on a two-day leadership retreat or spend time with your team in an agenda-free space?

It might be counter-intuitive but leaning into a difficult conversation gives you back time. It frees up wasted psychic energy. It solves problems. It clears the air. People can think more clearly and get into action. As Theodore Levitt said, creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things. Dialogue helps with both.

3. “There are some people you can’t have a dialogue with.”

An L&D Director of a large retail organisation with stores spread across the UK recently said to me that they could trace all the leadership issues in their organisation back to a single source: the reluctance or inability to have difficult conversations.

At the heart of this is a common perception (or mis-perception) amongst some managers: that there’s a ‘difficult person’ on the team that makes dialogue impossible. Perhaps someone immediately springs to mind? Reflect on these questions:

  • What sort of person is ‘X’?
  • What do you dread most about your conversation with them?
  • What’s the impact on you of anticipating this?

Now switch your focus. Instead of putting your attention on how difficult X is or how hostile the conversation will be, imagine talking with a more positive tone. Think of three questions to ask them that you don’t typically cover. These could include:

  • What’s your main challenge right now?
  • What resources would help you to manage this?
  • What can I do to support you?

There is a principle in psychology which states, “What you focus on, expands.” If we expect someone to complain or agitate, we can be sure they will. If we change our tone, it can be contagious. The other person stops going along their well-worn groove and changes their focus too. Healthy self-regulation changes a conversation for the better.

Sarah Rozenthuler
Sarah Rozenthuler