A client called me recently to ask why I thought their supervisor hadn’t been as friendly as usual. Was this a reflection on their work? Could it be an indication of a bigger problem? I ended up playing the mediator — a good job for me — and reached out to the supervisor to find out what was going on. That person explained that they were in the middle of some personal problems and didn’t feel up to chatting around the water cooler. My client was incredibly relieved to hear there wasn’t something wrong at work.
A friend called to express frustration about an electrician who hadn’t answered several messages. I reached out to the electrician, who explained that his son has been sick and he needed a few more days to finish the project. My friend was thrilled to know the work would soon continue.
A colleague called to complain about an account manager who…You get the idea. I spend a surprising amount of my day — both when I’m on the clock and when I’m not — having those conversations that clients and colleagues and friends find too difficult.
Of course, I always ask that person: What can we do to get you to make that call next time?
We vent about our problems with a lot of people in our lives: friends and family members, job recruiters and career coaches, and therapists and marriage counselors. It’s a great first step, but if we’re not prepared to confront these issues, is it really much more than another type of gossip?
I believe in tackling things head-on. That’s why in my own company, Balancing Life’s Issues, the minute someone starts complaining about someone else, I call them in to join the conversation. I know that people are taken aback by this, but to become the kind of organization that we want to be — and to practice what we preach to others— I think it’s important to nip this gossip in the bud.
These kinds of “brutal conversations” aren’t just a way to solve the problem we’re facing at the moment. They help us build stronger, healthier relationships with the people around us.
By “brutal,” I don’t mean being harsh or severe. I’m talking about conversations that are so honest, direct, and to-the-point that at first one or both people might be a little uncomfortable. These are the kinds of talks that have the power to change the status quo, to take something that has gone off track and get it going in the right direction again.
Does just the thought of having one of these conversations make you tense? That’s OK! Nobody likes having them, but the bad news is that you won’t develop meaningful relationships - professional or personal - unless you do. To start, you’ll need to have those skills on hand when and if they need them.
As you’re thinking about having a tough conversation, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Plan out your conversation. This is not the time to wing it. Know exactly the points that you want to make. Ask yourself what you need to say (just the facts), as well as what you want to say (the supporting evidence).
Be a good listener. You want to make sure that you are understood, but give the other person that same courtesy. Make sure to pay attention to nonverbal cues. Even if the conversation is on Zoom, what they are not saying can tell you a lot.
Be prepared to put on the brakes. When you sense that things aren’t going in the right direction, don’t hesitate to call a time out. That gives you a chance to take a deep breath and redirect the conversation.
Turn the lens on yourself. Take some time to reflect on yourself. What behavior could you change that could help your relationship?
Remember that people come first. Relationships trump everything. And I do mean everything.
I’ve been careful here not to frame this piece as just another version of “How to Have Tough Conversations at Work.” Some of the hardest conversations are with friends and family members. The same set of rules applies — especially that last one at relationships.
This past year has been a struggle for all of us. Let’s all resolve to take advantage of this moment when we’re all coming together again to stop gossiping about the frustrations we feel about others and dare to face them directly. You might not always get it right — I rarely do — but starting the conversation is the best way to really get to know one another.