What Makes Difficult Conversations… Difficult? (And One Thing to Do About It)

You’ve been there. One of your employees (or someone else you depend on for something) isn’t meeting expectations, and you’ve got a choice. You can tolerate it and hope that the problem will fix itself on its own – that they’ll discover on their own that their performance needs adjustment. Or, you can talk to them about it. (You could also do the first for awhile while you let your resentment build until you blow up.)

In the long run, option two is your best bet. For most people, however, option two is still a gamble. There’s no guarantee that talking to them about it is going to make a difference. Most of us aren’t that comfortable telling someone they need to shape up. Then, when we have the conversations, we focus our attention more on managing our own discomfort that having a useful conversation. How that looks can play out a lot of ways. Some people get uncomfortable and get angry. Others try to get it over with as soon as possible. Some people try to manage the other person’s discomfort and end up minimizing the issue and being really nice. However it looks, an unwillingness to be uncomfortable will tank any chance at a useful conversation. In this case, a useful conversation has several elements:

1. Your employee is clear what the performance problem is.

2. You are clear that they’re clear. In other words, they’ve told you what the problem is.

3. They have distinguished what can be done about it.

4. They have generated a plan for implementing what needs to be done.

When you’re focused on managing your own (or your employee’s) discomfort, it’s easy to drop out any one of those elements. Instead of getting absolutely clear that they are clear on the problem, you might settle for them saying, “I understand,” or, “it won’t happen again.” Instead of problem solving and looking closely at how they’ll do things differently next time, you might just tell them not to do it again, or accept it as handled when they tell you they won’t. Being with the discomfort is critical if these conversations are going to make a difference.

The trick is to begin developing a greater capacity for being with discomfort. The most obvious way to do that is to make sure you’re checking off every item on that list whenever you have to have one of these conversations. A less obvious way, and what we’re going to discuss here, is to start practicing mindfulness.

Start practicing mindfulness?!?! What does that have to do with having difficult conversations?! I’m glad you asked. Most people don’t like meditating the first time they try it. I still don’t like it, and according to the Headspace app, I’ve logged hundreds of hours. Why we tend to find it so uncomfortable is because, when we take time and don’t distract ourselves from our thoughts, we discover that a lot of our thoughts are very uncomfortable. We start remembering all of the things we promised we’d do. We think of all the things we’ve left undone. We start imagining all the things that might go wrong in that presentation that’s coming up. And all of those thoughts are uncomfortable!!! The practice of mindfulness involves sitting with those thoughts as they arise, and simply letting them be without trying to get rid of them, avoid them, or react to them.

What you’ll discover is that, as you practice, you’ll get better. You’ll be able to let thoughts arise and then let them go. You’ll be less apt to fix, change, and control them. And, as you do, you’ll get better and better at being with your discomfort in day to day life. It won’t go away, but you’ll be able to turn your attention away from managing it. Situations that you used to find uncomfortable will be less and less of a big deal.

So here’s your assignment. Start a meditative practice. If you’re new to it, start small. See if you can sit and follow your breath for 5 minutes. As you get better, increase your time. And if you want guidance, you guessed it, there’s an app for that! I already mentioned Headspace, which I like because it has a lot of progressive programs, but there are lots a free apps as well such as Insight Timer.

Make this a regular part of your day and it won’t be long before you start noticing benefits. You’ll be less stressed, calmer, more centered, and more effective as a leader.