We were in a trendy restaurant in east London. The conversation and drinks were flowing. At the end of the meal, my friend muttered, "This is going to be an awkward conversation." When the restaurant manager was in range, my buddy signaled him over. With chagrin, he stated that the steak was "chewy." "Oh, my apologies -- I'd be happy to remove that item from your bill sir," the manager said and then whisked himself away.
Many of us who might like to speak up in these kinds of scenarios, often choose not to. We repeatedly avoid the awkward conversation. This is particularly true when it concerns the workplace. Unfortunately for the manager, my friend has awkward conversations for a living. His strength as an executive coach is dependent on having difficult dialogue. What's at stake for the leadership and the business is just too fateful to sugar coat. Here are a few principles for making those challenging chats just a little bit easier.
Find and hold onto a shared vocabulary.
It can be a revelation when you realize that the conflict that exists is due to the fact that there is not a shared understanding of the words you're using. For example, some executives are concerned about flexible working because they believe people will simply stop coming to the office and that productivity may fall. But they miss the point. Steelcase's consulting arm has proven if they frame the same concept as choice and control, the response is much more favorable. The purpose of flexible working is not to keep folks out of the office but to empower them to work in the way that best suits them. And the point is to use a shared language that can helps spring collective action.
A popular term like "innovate" often needs unpacking in order to find common ground. Are we talking about the process of experimentation and collaboration necessary to innovate or the result of a new product in the marketplace commercially succeeding? A particular team under specific circumstances will have their own understanding of what it means for their business to innovate. Instead of placing value judgments on whether something is good or bad, it's more helpful to look at things as competing forces. The tension that exists between innovation and efficiency is actually one to be managed.
"If we don't have a shared understanding of language then we are trapped in a default future," says Lisa Gill, founder of Reimaginaire. As a leadership coach and team facilitator, she sees firsthand how shared dialogue can bring folks out of their current reality and imagine what could be.
Avoid artificial harmony.
Healthy conflict, as it sounds, is a good thing. "Teams, because they are made up of imperfect human beings, are inherently dysfunctional," writes Patrick Lencioni in The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team. Acknowledging this fact can mark the beginning of working through conflict. Avoiding conflict all together can easily result in artificial harmony.
Everyone has been in meetings where people don't really speak their mind for fear of conflict. At social media scheduling company (and fully distributed workforce) Buffer, they realized they suffered from artificial harmony in their teams. They've since taken steps to overcome the hazard by building trust early and working towards mastering conflict. This means no more shadow talking and possessing the courage to speak your mind.
With an environment premised around trust folks can engage in passionate debate and be constructive -- moving through the tensions that exist instead of dwelling on them.
Engage in transformational conversations.
We all have declined a calendar invite for a meeting that we can actually make but just can't bring ourselves to attend. Often it's because we don't see the benefit. The most common reasons for gathering together at work are for status updates, open or managed discussions, presentations, or brainstorms. These microstructures can help shed some light on why it is you're not so jazzed up for that next meet. Jason Fried, a founder at 37signals, understands this well and organizes his calendar specifically to be deliberate with his time and engage only in meaningful activities.
When dialogue becomes transformational it's not because choices were presented. It's due to the rationale and logic behind the decisions clearly being explained. Liberating Structures, a framework that Lisa Gill uses for facilitating radically candid conversations can be a revelation. The 33 tools for conversation (take your pick of which to employ) can help bolster, "Innovation, inclusion, participation, clarity, purpose, and fun." What it really comes down to, is treating people like adults.
"So many managers don't realize the collective intelligence and creativity of their teams" explains Gill. Part of this is because they don't use (or even have) the right tools to tease out the ingenuity that remains dormant in their teams. Put together these principles for working and create a more human workplace and help you and your teams thrive.
Jonas Altman is a writer and entrepreneur. Thousands receive his monthly roundup on doing great work: Sign up to get the digest