Saturday, 9 March 2019

Taking the difficulty out of honest conversations

Germayne Williams-Sylvester, Cohort 2017

SELA Cohort 2017 recently had the pleasure of participating in a workshop on “Difficult Situations & Honest Conversations”, led by Lucy Owens from Lucy Owens Coaching, with actors Marie Ekins and Jamie Cymbal. The workshop started with Marie and Jamie acting out a scenario in which a student had a difficult conversation with a project supervisor. We were asked to identify flaws in their approach and dialogue, and offer improvements. The scene was then repeated, incorporating our advice. We made some good initial progress on trying to remedy the problematic dynamics within their interaction, but it was clear we needed to dig a little deeper.

And so we split into two separate groups, with an actor assigned to each. In my group we were each given our own set of scenarios where we had to partake in a conversation of a challenging or sensitive nature with Jamie. These included giving difficult feedback, managing poor team dynamics and lack of contributions, and negotiating summer placement terms.

There were some great takeaways from participating and observing how each of these scenarios played out. Here’s some things I learnt.

First, Set the Tone


This is more about managing yourself, than any particular technique for achieving your desires. Here you ensure that you’ve approached the conversation from a positive standpoint – or neutral standpoint if you have negative news to convey. Greet the person you’re talking to pleasantly, engage and create the environment for the other person to be receptive to what you are about to say. The consequences of this are most keenly experienced when done incorrectly. Even if the other party is in the wrong, approaches that are negative, accusatory and dismissive only serve to make people defensive and uncooperative.

Do not set yourself up for failure. You want to build rapport here, not destroy it.

Now, get to the point


Whilst setting the tone is important, it shouldn’t take up most of your time. Nail your approach, and then bring the other person onto the same page as you as soon as possible. Engaging in twenty minutes of pleasant small talk, to then suddenly break out bad news comes across as confusing at best, and disingenuous at worst. You need to convey what the situation is, the magnitude of it and its consequences, as quickly as possible. This accelerates you towards a solution, as thoroughly stating the boundaries of a situation gives the other person more freedom to propose ideas with equally detailed boundaries.

After a break, we switched actors, expecting to try new scenarios. Whilst the context remained the same for the aforementioned situations, Marie presented an entirely different, and more difficult personality. From this point, it now became crucial to follow my third point of learning.

Always aim for the win-win.


Sometimes in trying to push our own agenda, we start to engage in a tug of war with another person. It may not be the case that they are against our direction or unwilling to help, it may simply be the case that they do not currently see where their priorities align with ours. The least helpful thing to do in this situation is to simply push for the significance of our agenda, whilst ignoring or downplaying the significance of theirs – especially if you’re working as part of a team. Make an effort to be aware of their priorities too, and use that to your advantage! Take the initiative and explain why your respective priorities are not so disparate, and how you can both benefit, and you just might find them pulling on your side of the rope.

And so concluded our workshop with Lucy, Jamie and Marie. It became clear that considering the goals of others as well as your own, in an environment conducive to a respectful discussion revolving around the point of contention, is the ideal approach. I hope these three lessons help you navigate the uneven terrain of difficult situations, and honest conversations, just as the workshop did for me.

1 comment:

  1. Hi - fascinating to see what you took from our recent "Difficult Conversations" workshop with you and your SELA peers. It was a pleasure working with you and I'm glad you found the experience to be valuable. I'll share your super blog on LinkedIn.

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