We have all been faced with needing to have a “difficult” conversation with a co-worker. Sometimes we put it off or avoid the conversation altogether because of our fear of an unpleasant outcome. It is helpful to change your mindset from thinking of these conversations as “difficult” to thinking of them as “courageous.”
Why do we avoid these potentially contentious conversations? Sometimes the element of surprise propels us into an emotional reaction. My friend “John” was recently having a phone conversation with “Susan,” who works for another company. Suddenly John hung up on Susan. When they talked it over later, Susan realized that she had offended John by making a derogatory comment about his company. John was suddenly so angry that he was afraid of what he might say and regret later, so he hung up. In the end, they were able to talk it over and they both learned something from the exchange.
The “Hot Potato”
When we are taken by surprise or confronted with a potential conflict and emotions flare, we experience two common reactions: either flight or fight. This is what I call the “Hot Potato.” We either want to throw the potato back at the other person (fight or aggression), or quietly hide the potato (flight or avoidance). When we feel the emotionally charged “Hot Potato” reaction, it means we feel unsafe. If we recognize the same reaction in another person, it means they feel unsafe. Trust and feeling safe are key to healthy and productive communication.
We may also avoid certain conversations as a learned response where we feel pushed to choose between honesty and kindness. We don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings by telling them bluntly that we don’t like something they are doing, so we say nothing.
The most common response to potential conflict or a difficult conversation is silence. The consequences of silence and avoidance in a business are dramatic. It often results in increased costs, unhappy customers, low morale and ultimately a less profitable business.
The first step is to identify the “Hot Potato” reaction, and become curious about the safety issue. Why would the other person feel unsafe? Ask questions to find out what the other person is thinking. Make it safe with an honest and direct message. This will help encourage open communication, instead of silence, and it will create better results for individuals and businesses.