Say It Gently, But Say It Conducting Difficult Conversations
We are all faced with difficult conversations in life. Here’s an extreme case you may remember from the news a few years ago. A young lady was caught hiring an undercover hit man to kill her husband. Her reason? She did not want to tell him in person that she wanted a divorce because she did not want to hurt his feelings. When I heard this story, I did not know if I should be amused or horrified. Really? She wanted to kill him, so she wouldn’t hurt his feelings?
This extreme example of one’s inability to speak the truth, which nearly resulted in a tragic death, highlights a phenomenon I see all the time in leadership and and among teams. We have such a deep-seated fear of difficult conversations. As I look at my own life, I know how terrifying a few conversations can be. But if we do not develop skills in this area, our leadership, in fact our relationships, will always be a struggle. I will present to you today a solution for your consideration: Say it gently, but say it.
When you are uncomfortable: Say it gently, but say it.
I see this often among teams. If there is one bad player, or one group does not get along well with another, people are ready to walk away. Their immediate solution is to quit the team or the company. People may be fuming, huffing and puffing, and acting tough. But I ask one simple question, “Why haven’t you talked to that person?” The responses I receive are many, and none are usually good answers. The real reason is always, “I feel uncomfortable.”
So we sacrifice relationships; we sacrifice working together; we sacrifice our sanity; and we sacrifice our values. Some even resort to hiring a hit man—all because we want to avoid confrontation. But difficult conversations don’t have to be confrontations. They don’t even have to be difficult. So what is the remedy for this extreme discomfort? Plan whatever you want to say, and determine to say it with kindness and gentleness. But it must be said.
When you are in fear: Say it gently, but say it.
Discomfort can turn into outright fear. But what are we afraid of anyway? That they may pick up a gun a shoot us? Jump up and slap us? Storm out and never speak to us again? If that’s what we are afraid of, then the relationship needs to end anyway or get it set straight right away. Even in these situations, saying it gently, but saying it works. If the person acts up or act out, end the relationship or draw some new boundaries. When we talk kindly to someone, it is simply not right for them to treat us poorly, and it should not be tolerated.
A while back I had to ask a person who had worked very closely with me for many years to leave our team. I remember driving to work that morning. I was feeling uneasy, but I had a plan. I had rehearsed the setting, and I knew what I was going to say. Still, I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I feared the words, and the tears, and the potential drama. Would that person yell? Scream? Threaten me? All these thoughts and feelings ran through my head. But I had finally learned as a leader that if I am to have success in my life, and for my team and my organization, I must learn to have difficult conversations. It wasn’t easy that day. It was sad. But we had the conversation. I said what I needed to say; gently, but I said it. We moved on.
When you are in leadership: Say it gently, but say it.
So my friend, if you are in leadership, this is an area in which we must always improve; we must succeed at conducting difficult conversations. Remember, success is more about having the conversation and less about controlling the outcomes. The outcomes are not always neat and pretty, or even peaceful. But if you honor people, be gentle, and trust your instincts when a conversation is needed, you will fulfill your responsibilities as a leader.
So many of us say nothing at all because we want so badly to be kind. Then we end up exploding and cast a person out of our lives, at least mentally. This is not a good approach. So, let me share with you a few practical thoughts on how to apply the principle to Say it gently, but say it. And more importantly, this is how we should teach this principle to our teams and the leaders we work closely with.
Be humble: We are poor judges.
There is a reason Jesus commanded, “Don’t judge.” We make poor judges. We are so colored by our biases and needs, so unable to see the pains and journeys of others, that making final, definitive pronouncements about other people is almost impossible. Let’s be humble, meaning we acknowledge I could be wrong, which should lead to lowering our tone.
Think and reflect as long as possible.
We must be strategic. Below, I will talk about not waiting too long. But here I want to make the point that we should not take forever, but give ourselves as much time as possible. Think on what to say, in what order, at what time, in what fashion, using what tone, and with what facts. This seems like a lot of work. Some say, “I just speak my mind,” which usually leads to, “I just bulldoze over everyone.” This must not be the way of the wise leader. And it is never the way of the effective leader. Wise, effective leaders give careful thought to engaging with people.
Talk to all parties before you make a judgement.
I have made this mistake many times. A person, usually close to me, will come and tell me about a horrible thing that happened with another person. I make up my mind what has occurred, before even talking to the other person. Regardless how clear one party may make things seem, it’s true every story has two sides. We must honor people’s dignity by listening to their side of the story.
Have the conversation as close to the event as possible.
When we don’t address the issues close to the time they occur, sour feelings begin to fester. The wounds deepen. People may even start feeling that the leader does not have the courage or the skill to take care of the matter right away. And this leads to low morale. My rule is to try to address the issue within 24 hours, and no more than 3 days.
Have the conversation in the morning.
In the morning, most of us feel good physically and emotionally. I rarely see people squabble in the morning. There is nothing magical about the morning, other than when we are rested, our emotions, our thinking, and our actions tend to be less combative.
Start by apologizing.
I know many people will disagree with me on this point. But these are the people who cannot be part of a successful team, nor be successful at leadership. The usual complaint is, “Why should I apologize if it wasn’t my fault?” It doesn’t matter who is right, nor in what manner they were hurt. So just apologize. If they think you hurt their feelings, apologize with “I am sorry I hurt your feelings.” Not, “I am sorry your feelings were hurt.”
Continue by asking for feedback.
After an apology, I like to ask people to give me feedback: “What can I do differently to make things better?” This is an invitation for people to talk and tell you what is on their heart.
Apologizing and the asking for feedback usually invites people to open up and to lower their defenses. So now, we listen. With difficult situations, the key to resolution is understanding another person’s perspective. If we’ll both seek to do this, there is rarely a problem after that. So you start. Listen intently. Don’t defend, and don’t interrupt. Let them finish.
Then wait for an invitation to speak.
Let me be clear. Apologizing, asking for feedback, and listening, do not in any way mean that we should not present our point clearly. You should. And the other person is now more likely to listen because you let them present their side of the story first. You modeled it. You demonstrated to them how to apologize, ask for feedback, and listen. There are no guarantees, but most likely the other person will treat you in kind.
Grace. How few of us offer it to others. Grace is not needed when we are surrounded by people we get along with. Grace is practiced with people who hurt us. Grace means, “Even if you hurt me, I will love you.” Grace is a fruit of the tree of unconditional love. When you extend grace, it is a noble and beautiful gesture which infuses a relationship with life giving vitality. Great leaders have grace.
Kind words. A kind tone of voice. Kind body language. Be keenly aware of how you are presenting yourself.
If you read my blogs you know one of my favorite quotes of President Lincoln’s is, “The strongest force on earth is gentleness.” May we know the power of gentleness, kindness, and grace. These three are the way into any person’s heart.
When it’s your turn, don’t unload. Don’t unleash destruction. But do say what needs to be said. Not everything maybe, but stick to the top priorities. And say them gently.
Next Step: Think on these steps. Adapt them to your liking. Live them. Then teach them to your team.
The Book I Just Read: Lincoln The Unknown by Dale Carnegie.
For Further Reading: