Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Difficult Conversations: My Advice for Tackling Taboo Discussion Topics with Ease

Jack Trethewey, Cohort 2018

Think back to the last time you had to have a difficult conversation. Perhaps you were plucking up the courage to ask for that much-needed pay-rise. Maybe you wanted to give an uncooperative group member a piece of your mind. Or perhaps you were reaching the climax of some intense negotiations. How did the conversation make you feel? Did all participants get their desired outcome? Or did you choose to avoid the conversation, convincing yourself it was something for someone else to eventually deal with? Tricky chats have always filled me with a sense of dread and have usually left all parties involved feeling slightly dissatisfied. However, thanks to the entertaining workshop facilitated by Lucy Owens from Lucy Owens Coaching, actors Jamie Cymbal, Marie Ekins and Andrew Palmer, I realised that my conversation-anxiety was misplaced and that it is, more often than not, possible for everyone to come away from tough conversations feeling satisfied. So I am here to share with you some key things I learned, in the hope that you’ll also tackle any tricky talks with confidence and positivity.

1. Think, but not too much!

Obtaining the correct balance between ill-preparedness and over-preparedness can, at first, seem elusive. However, getting this right is crucial to ensuring a successful outcome. From observing many scenarios in the workshop, I learned that thinking carefully about what you want to achieve, how this will impact all conversation participants and the style of language you want to use is the limit of how much you should plan. If you go beyond this, you’ll find yourself descending into a cloud of anxiety as you try to envision every direction in which the conversation could lurch. If you overthink, it is likely you will engage the illogical part of your brain and start concentrating on unlikely outcomes whilst taking focus away from the areas of the conversation you really need to prepare for. Furthermore, if the conversation doesn’t go in the direction you specifically planned for, you can end up worse off and risk looking unprofessional as you could be improvising your responses in a scenario you hadn’t thought about.

2. Use active listening to your advantage

We’ve all been there, watching somebody speak passionately about an uninteresting subject - our eyes glazed over, ears switched off and our brains disengaged, counting the number of freckles on our wrists or scrolling relentlessly through Facebook, desperate for a quick serotonin boost. However this workshop made me realise it is crucial to use your active listening skills when engaging in tough conversations. That is, proactively process everything that is being said, keenly observe your counterpart’s body language and respond considerately and appropriately. It’s likely you’ll pick up on little bits of information or emotion that you would’ve otherwise missed, which you could use to your advantage. For example, perhaps your manager will briefly mention a pressing bit of paperwork they have to prioritise before assisting you. Your active listening could allow you to turn this issue into an opportunity by offering to help with their paperwork to finish it more quickly, allowing them to turn their full attention to your dilemma. What was originally assumed to be a difficult conversation can actually turn into a mutually-beneficial blessing in disguise.

3. Don’t forget the common courtesies

We often take politeness and small acts of kindness for granted. However, in a high-stress scenario, common courtesies can all-too-easily fly out of the window, especially if we allow nerves to get the better of us. So, when engaging with another party, stay polite. If subject-urgency demands you interrupt a conversation, apologise sincerely and acknowledge the inconvenience you’re causing. If you walk into a group discussion and confidentialit requires some people to leave a room, show appreciation for the sacrifices they may be making for you. If you are losing control of the conversation, remain calm, stay polite and (if necessary) take a deep breath and make your point from a difficult angle. At the very least, others will remember the level of professionalism you demonstrated which could prove to your advantage in future.

My Conclusion

Very rarely do engineers get the opportunity to explore the creative arts as part of their career developments. From my observations, this appears to be a result of our logic-based nature and the unique character of our courses. However, one thing all engineers have in common is the ability to learn by doing – whether this be through lab experiments, group projects or prototype building. The hands-on nature of this workshop allowed the cohort to put themselves right in the middle of some difficult social challenges, meaning their difficulties could be observed from a new previously-unseen perspective. Furthermore, engineers are natural problem solvers. This roleplay allowed us to visualise our problems and trial solutions to solve them, adjusting variables (such as our mannerisms and style of language) along the way to tweak the final outcome until the desired results were achieved. Thus it’s clear to see there is an unusual compatibility between drama and engineering that allows students to think differently about the problems they are faced with, opening them to a new world of solutions they would have otherwise not had access to. This is why it is crucial for anyone anticipating a difficult conversation to develop the points they wish to make by practising roleplay. If you are unsure how, try scheduling a meeting with a friend or colleague who would be willing to help you explore the conversation you want to have.

This workshop has been one of my favourites throughout my time so far with SELA. Difficult conversations have always been something I’ve aimed to avoid, however I now realise they are an unavoidable part of professional life. In fact, I would say that if any natural leader wishes climb the career ladder, difficult conversations will have to be had. I now look forward to putting the tips and tricks I have learned in this workshop to use in my future career as an engineer.

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