February 19, 2006

Good day, team,

This week’s challenge is about having hard conversations with
colleagues. This subject comes up with my clients more often than any
other. It is certainly one of the most challenging things we have to do
as supervisors and managers. It’s also incredibly challenging for us to
do with a friend, spouse, intimate relation or family member. Why is it
so hard for us to tell others the truth?

I’ll start by sharing a small story from Andy Rooney, staff member of
“60 Minutes” and noted author. In his book “The Most of Andy Rooney,” he
recounted the following anecdote in the chapter “Friendship: Handle with

Six months ago I was talking to a friend on the telephone. We used to
talk two or three times a week, and we often had lunch. For about the
fiftieth time he started telling me about some money he was trying to
get from his father’s estate. (After his mother died, his father
remarried a schoolteacher. Later his father died, and the schoolteacher
took up with another man, and my friend thought this fellow was after
the money.)

I didn’t really know or care about all the details and finally I said,
“Charley, if you’d spent as much time working in the past years as
you’ve spent trying to get that money, you’d be rich.”

It seemed like half a joke and half a sharp remark that I could make to
my old friend, but I was wrong.

“Who needs a friend like you?” he said, and slammed down the receiver. I
haven’t talked to Charley since and may never. I made one attempt to
call him, but he was out and I haven’t tried again. I suspect I violated
the first rule of friendship. To stay friends with anyone you have to
avoid saying anything unforgivable and in Charley’s mind, what I said
was unforgivable. I embarrassed him.

Rooney’s point highlights the potential we all fear: That what we say
could permanently alienate another person. Communication with others is
difficult enough without having to potentially embarrass or offend
someone. But inevitably in a work situation, we must have hard
conversations with people from time to time. Whether it’s the person who
reports to us who’s chronically late or our co-worker who says
inappropriate things to customers, at some point each of us has to take
the risk of offending someone else by pointing out what needs to be made

And no one likes to be corrected. Therein lies the problem. When we have
to confront others, we invariably remember how it makes us feel to be
corrected or criticized (even if we know it’s constructive criticism).
So we chicken out because we don’t want the other person to feel bad.
Sometimes we think we have more leeway with friends and family, but the
results are often as Rooney describes them.

Most companies have programs that train managers how to have difficult
conversations. These programs advise that staying with the facts,
framing the message in a positive way, inviting the other person into
the conversation to get his or her views first and then offering another
perspective are all good ways to deliver tough messages. But the bottom
line is that “The sting of a reproach is the truth in it,” and sometimes
trying to avoid or sugar-coat the message makes the entire communication
even less effective than it would have been if we’d just said what we
needed to say and moved on. When I think back over my career, the best
messages I’ve received were often the hardest to hear. I try to recall
that insight when I’m heading into a difficult conversation with
someone, instead of worrying about how that person will react.

Why is it so important to step up, to have these difficult conversations
and tell the truth? Because in the end, deep down, we all know what is
true. And relationships based upon anything other than the truth will
not last. In a work environment, nothing is potentially more corrosive
than avoiding an obvious truth by suppressing it, lying about it, or
most commonly, pretending it doesn’t exist. Maintaining these
deceptions takes up too much energy that could otherwise be channeled
into productive work. Once spoken, the truth can actually set us free.

Your challenge this week is to have a difficult conversation you’ve been
avoiding. Consider who you need to speak to and give some consideration
to what the best way is to deliver the message to that person. Try to be
sincere and plain-spoken. If you speak from your heart with a clear
message, you can’t lose. The listener may have difficulty hearing the
words, but she or he will recognize your sincerity and the clarity of
your message.

Have a great week!


Kathleen Doyle-White
Pathfinders Coaching
(503) 296-9249

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *