Hang on a minute – who really is this ‘difficult conversation’ difficult for?
Many managers have told me that they need to properly prepare for a meeting with a staff member because the meeting will be uncomfortable for the staff member and the conversation content will be difficult to receive.
What I believe the manager is really saying to me is that they have to properly prepare for a meeting with a staff member because the message and the meeting experience will be difficult for themselves. Thus they are projecting on to the staff member the discomfort they feel from their own internal conflict about the meeting.
The dialogue from the manager is usually something like: the meeting will be uncomfortable because it will be a space of conflict with the staff member. The reason for this is because the staff member is a difficult person. So in essence it is the staff member who has a problem with receiving feedback or with being given instructions. Therefore it is the staff member who ‘needs to be fixed’ or who ‘needs to change’.
Interestingly the dialogue from the staff member is usually something like: the meeting will be uncomfortable for me because it will be a space of conflict with the manager. I am in conflict with the manager because of their inappropriate or unprofessional behaviour towards me. I don’t know why they are like that towards me. I know they don’t like me. They don’t like me because...
So in some ways, the manager is ‘half right’. Yes the staff member is going to find the meeting uncomfortable. But their assumptions about why are usually inaccurate.
And in some ways, the manager is ‘mostly wrong’. They have failed to self reflect deeply enough to name and deconstruct their own internal conflict and the causes or trigger for this.
The staff member is usually uncomfortable in such a meeting because they ‘feel’ the projection from the manager...it’s almost tangible and appears in the form of a ‘hidden agenda’.
Most managers will deny the existence of a ‘hidden agenda’ - which makes sense if the manager is being defensive (trying protect themselves from feeling uncomfortable and denying this by projecting their source of discomfort on to the attributes or attitude of the staff member). So it is true, working from this position, the manager does have a ‘hidden agenda’. I am going to identify this position as the manager operating in what I call the first space, ‘Defensive’ (see diagram below).
When managers recognise that they have been masking their reaction to their own intrapersonal conflict about the staff member and about the upcoming meeting, they have created a space to explore their own discomfort. I have named this second space ‘Reflective’.
Taking the focus off making assumptions about the staff member (what they are thinking, why they are thinking, guessing how they will react, etc) to then explore one’s self allows for the third space, ‘Constructive’, to be created. This is where one is better able to focus on procedural fairness, policy defined processes and choosing unemotional, non judgemental language.
Moving from Defensive to Constructive is about acknowledging and dissecting the hidden agenda and then working to create a transparent agenda based on facts and data. In the Constructive space, the manager is not being negatively influenced by their emotions or their (perhaps misplaced) assumptions and judgements about the staff member.
Being able to access and work from this space allows for the creation of a fourth space, Effective, in which the meeting can be prepared for and conducted using mindfulness and emotional intelligence.
Creating the best opportunity for both the manager and staff member to feel comfortable in the meeting means the manager must be operating from at least the Constructive space.
For the meeting to be productive (in terms of clear and factual communication exchanges) and constructive (in terms of building rapport, understanding and professional relationships) the manager must be in the fourth Effective space.
It is only from here that the manager can be skillful enough to influence (with integrity) the movement of the staff member from Defensive to Constructive.
As you can see from the diagram, the transition through the spaces require a shift in focus from the self to others, and a shift from a lower level of emotional intelligence to a higher level of emotional intelligence. The shift in emotional intelligence can in fact be an oscillation, hence why the journey appears as a spiral upwards rather than a straight line.
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