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What lies beneath: Why we avoid difficult conversations

What lies beneath: Why we avoid difficult conversations

by Moyra Mackie on September 20, 2013

Recently I was coaching a client – let’s call him Joe – who told me he was seriously considering leaving his company.

When I asked him why, Joe didn’t mention anything about the merits of his company’s competitors.

What he did talk about was his boss

“I don’t get any feedback.  I’m told no news is good news but I don’t know what I’m doing right and I don’t think I can learn and grow if I don’t know exactly where and how to improve or challenge myself.”

So I asked him what he could do to change this situation

“Well I could have a talk with him and say I feel that I can’t develop without any timely feedback.  I don’t want to wait til my annual appraisal.  I need to have more regular conversations about how I’m doing. I need to understand what the impact of what I am doing – or not doing – is having on the business and my key stakeholders.”

Then I asked if he had had this conversation with his boss

And he said no; explaining his boss was busy, under a lot of stress and that he didn’t see much of him face-to-face due to working in a remote location.

He was waiting for the right moment

I responded:

“What’s really stopping you?”

“Well I worry what he might say.”

“You’re afraid?”

“Yes I guess so.”

“What are you afraid of?”

“I don’t know…well it’s risky. He might say that if I’m unhappy I should leave. Or he might hold it against me later on.”

See how far this conversation had come? 

What started with a statement about wanting to change jobs had transformed into an exploration of unexpressed needs and fears.

Wants vs needs self limiting beliefs

This is what we human beings do: we find “coping mechanisms”

We find what we think will be a solution.  But as Paul Watzlawick states in his book Change, “the solution becomes the problem.”

Or as  Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith write in  Resolving Conflicts At Work:

“Most organisations… have developed cultures that encourage people to NOT fully communicate what they really want and settle for partial solutions or no solutions at all. Denying the existence of our conflicts does not make them disappear, but simply gives them greater covert power.”

Joe was finding that his solution of avoiding the potentially tricky conversation with his boss was now a problem.

So he found another solution

Leave his job.  But would changing company guarantee him a boss and co-workers who were great at feedback?

Joe’s real need was for better, more timely feedback.

In having a difficult conversation Joe will feel vulnerable

Part of his brain will feel like his ancient ancestor who has just left the cave to find food and finds himself out on the plain – potential food for other predators.

But Joe isn’t the only one who is afraid

His manager is too.  His manager will feel vulnerable. He might hear the need for feedback as criticism of his leadership.  He may feel shame.

Shame may seem a strong word, but researcher and writer Brene Brown has some powerful evidence of how we react in challenging situations.

“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice.”

Managers who are leaders get this

They will listen carefully and non-judgmentally and will probe for what really lies beneath the surface.

As Cloke and Goldsmith say:

“There are always issues that lie beneath the surface and need to be brought into the open for the conflict to be resolved…. start with yourself and think what you might be able to do to respond more powerfully to what lies beneath his or her statements.”

So what holds us back from having the NECESSARY conversations is not a lack of time or opportunity, but fear.

Fear of being weak, fear of not being able to handle it all, fear of failing. And we cover up that fear with action and false solutions.

You can spend a lifetime learning “skills” like leadership and conflict management.  But the greatest skill is the courage to understand yourself and then to open up to those you live and work with.

Brene Brown says it best:

“One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance we place on “going it alone.” Somehow we’ve come to equate success with not needing anyone…It’s as if we’ve divided the world into “those who offer help” and “those who need help.” The truth is that we are both.”

Moyra Mackie

Moyra Mackie

Moyra Mackie helps leaders and teams to work with courage, compassion and creativity. She is an executive coach and consultant and the founder of Mackie Consulting.

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