The Queen of Awkward Conversations

I was recently told that I am the queen of awkward conversations.  While that may sound like an insult….to 95% of the population, the person that said that to me knew that I would wear it like a badge of honor.

See….I am not afraid of difficult conversations.  Between hating surprises and being a problem solver, I don’t like loose ends.  When I read the room and understand that someone’s words don’t match their actions, I will approach them to find out the real story.  While some may feel awkward to having that conversation, it is natural for me.  What I find is that most people wear their feelings on their sleeves yet they won’t clearly discuss those feelings unless pressed.  They believe they are being polite or afraid of the potential conflict that might incur.

elephant in a room

I am a strong believer in the adage; you can’t fix something if you don’t know it’s broken.  So if someone is saying “yes” but acting out “no”, it makes the task harder to accomplish.

My advice on how to have those difficult conversations may be hard for some to address but having the conversation has never ever failed me.  A few reasons to have the conversations:

  • Even in situations where the result may not be in my best interest, by being on the same page with my antagonist, I even the playing field.
  • I can impact my destiny and help direct the conversation. If I don’t know their objections, I am at the mercy of their decisions.
  • Knowing the other side’s point of view may open up my mind to other options or ideas. They may have some good points that are worthy of some action but I won’t know if I don’t push the envelope and ask
  • Offering to listen to their concerns has often bridged a dispute or a potential dispute. Sometimes people are just looking for someone that will listen
  • People try to hide their unhappiness but it never really goes away and it might come out in other ways. Talking about it and getting it out in the open can help redirect emotions to  drive out a better option

How Do I Start?

So how do you go about having the difficult conversation? Here are the ways I make sure I take advantage of the opportunity:

  1. Take out the emotion.  This is the hardest part for most people.

I had a client that told me that my people were no good.  Since I knew that wasn’t true, I tried to arrange a meeting with this individual.  This individual didn’t want to meet with me but I finally got a chance to get this person alone and I requested the meeting.  This person did not want to meet to talk about the insults that were thrown out.  However, I addressed the insults in a different manner.  I told this person that I wanted to understand why they felt this way.  See, I shared that I take the quality of our work quite seriously.  I told this individual that I couldn’t do anything about the insults but if there were situations that caused them to feel that way; I could attempt to address those situations.

That approach allowed them to agree to talk.  No justification as to why my people were insulted.  I took out the emotion.  I just wanted to know the facts.  Just the facts (I feel a little like Dragnet).  When we did meet, I focused on incidents that upset them.  I listened.  I may not have agreed but I let them talk.  Once they were finished and got everything off their chest, two things happened.  I was able to tell them some things that were going on in the background that they were unaware of which helped them to understand our actions better.  I also learned some things that weren’t being communicated properly that created a communication vacuum.  That was something that we could fix.  I was unaware of this fact until I had the conversation.

Did I resolve the people problem?  Probably not, but I did manage to diffuse it a little.

It would have been easy for me to take the defensive position in that conversation.  It would be where most people might have gone.  Yet, if I had gone in to the meeting and been upset for what I deemed to be misplaced anger, that individual would have had the opportunity to dig in their heels.  I might have even given them the justification to feel the way they did.  Or I could have also continued to ignore the situation and not have the conversation.  Then, I would not have had the opportunity to remedy their feelings and have a conversation to address what I could do better.

  1. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Whenever I have had a problem with a client, I’ve told my people to take the individual to lunch.  Getting to know someone better can build bridges.  Like my Mom used to say,” You don’t have to like everyone but you should be nice to them.”  Having a lunch with someone that doesn’t like you or has “something out” for you, allows you to be the bigger person.  It is the olive branch of business negotiations.  An offer of food goes a long way (see all my other blog references to food…).  You may learn why they have a bug up their butt about you and be able to address it (or at least diffuse it).
  2. If you don’t ask, you don’t know.  You can guess but until you ask for and have the meeting to discuss potential contention, you can only ensure success if you are a soothsayer.
  3. Depersonalize the situation. (See #1).  If there are issues, you will most likely hear something that offends you.  Rather than getting defensive, try to understand the reasons behind what they are saying.  I’ve found that more often than not, there is usually some value that can be drawn from the most contentious situation.  Negative Nellies often are ignored in organizations but if you listen and probe (through all of the noise); there is usually some truth to be found…some actionable things that can make a situation better.  Negative Nellies are often just poor communicators.  Listen through the noise of the negativity for the message.
  4. It’s just business. Different personalities share the same message in different ways.  If you are focused on the emotional ones and ignoring the message, you will never resolve the situation. I know that sometimes I might have a mean or angry client.
    It doesn’t matter if that is a problem with us or if they are just mean and angry to begin with.  If I avoid that individual, I am destined to fail since I won’t be part of the conversation.  So I ask the questions.  Because if I realize that there are issues that we can fix or address, I come out looking better because I have the opportunity to resolve them.  If I avoid the situation, it will simmer until we get to a boiling point which is way harder to resolve.

I have since taken on a different philosophy.  I make it known to my team that we will always say it like it is.  If we tell our clients what we believe is needed and share the reasons why and get removed based on sharing what we believe is in their best interest, I won’t lose sleep.  Yet, I will lose tons of sleep if avoid the conversations and then get kicked out because we failed.

My experience is that having the conversation will always lead me to a better outcome.  Avoiding never has worked for me.  If the situation is dire enough, it will always come back to bite me.

If you’d like to talk more about difficult conversations…when and how to have them, let me hear from you.

Diversity with a Blindfold

I can be pretty oblivious. No really…..I am. It would have caused me many an embarrassing moment if only I knew enough to be embarrassed.

Yet, while most people would find being oblivious a negative trait, I’ve come to realize that often our weaknesses can also be our strengths.

Take hiring as an example. I’ve been in business for 26 years and I’ve hired a lot of people. I’ve also had a history of diversity. Different ethnic, religious and sexual orientations have always been part of our make-up. The funny thing is that I didn’t drive my search in that manner. As my head of talent management says, I am “an accidental diversity employer.” It isn’t that I didn’t want to get there. It’s just that I didn’t think about it. It just happened.

BlindfoldWoman

Whether you say I’m oblivious or that I’m good at looking for the best in everyone. I’ve been able to create a great team of strong, diverse consultants. It comes pretty easy. When I read so much about how hard it is to create a diverse culture, I wonder, why? Why is it so hard to create a diverse culture?

I have a friend that was quite high up in a huge global Fortune 500 company as the head of HR. She retired and was in great demand elsewhere. She shared with me that she was wooed by a large financial organization to head HR. She arrived at the headquarters a couple of hours early on purpose. She spent the time watching the crowd coming to work. She noticed that there was little diversity among the people walking in. She went to her interview with the CEO and she called him out. She said that (paraphrasing), If you want a diverse workforce, then you have to hire for it.” (She is so cool).

So how do you create diversity? Simply… by being aware of your biases. I recently had scheduled an interview with a candidate that was causing me some anxiety due to a personal bias. My talent manager (of color) told me that she had never seen me like that. That comment alone pissed me off. I was probably more anxious about the fact that I was anxious than the interview itself. It wasn’t like me and I wanted to make sure that I gave this individual a fair interview.

Fast forward….the interview was great. By realizing my bias, I was able to remediate it. I evaluated the consultant fairly. I walked out wondering, what was the big deal? The candidate was engaged during the interview and we laughed A LOT! (I can sometimes be funny though my talent manager was a little jealous because she thinks she is the funny one.) I overcame my bias to realize that there was a potentially great resource for our organization.

So how it did it happen?

  1. The hardest part of addressing your bias is to be aware of your bias. That isn’t easy.   If I didn’t have a diverse talent manager, my result might be different. She recognized my bias and put my feet to the fire on the interview. She pushed me to have the interview. Once I understood that I did have a bias, I was able to confront it.
  2. Having diversity in the recruiting process can help. Now I’ve had other people in the talent management role before and still had a diverse organization but nothing like today. In looking back, I might not have had as much diversity because of the bias of my talent managers. Tough to admit, but true.
  3. When you force yourself to address your bias, your results begin to change.

And for those of you that are assuming that with diversity I must have a lower end talent pool, (hello, bias much?), quite the contrary. As a smaller business, my talent has to be top of the line or my clients have no reason to use me.

So what? I have a diverse team. Where is the value? I have an interesting and dynamic team. We may not be huge, but we all have fun when the team comes together on Fridays. I will sometimes see friendships coming together that I’m unclear would happen otherwise.  I know that I have a team that speaks to any of the needs of my clients. They have different views on life that allow them to work together– to think outside of the box. Being diverse has allowed me to truly focus on getting the best of the best. My microcosm of a company represents the world.

I may be oblivious but I’m not naïve. In our business, there are risks to diversity. Out of all the work that I’ve gone after in 26 years (oh by the way, Happy Anniversary to me), the odds are in my favor that I’ve lost something due to our diversity. That part is out of my control. Yet the diversity of my firm brings so many advantages that outweigh that one risk.

So to all of the CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies that struggle with creating diversity, I ask WHY is it so hard?

So learn a little about being oblivious. Be color blind and read the subtitles. Turns out I’m okay with being oblivious. I’ve come to understand that it is one of my greatest strengths.

Laura tries to tackle all problems with an objective eye. But if you pick your nose in public, please don’t apply for a job. There are some things she just can’t ignore.