Awkward Conversations 101

Mike and Steve are always having side conversations in meetings (a personal pet peeve). Suzie refuses to answer Renae’s request for information – all the time. Darin can’t seem to pick up on how to dress for the meeting with the investment board.

Great leaders value their team, but I can’t tell you how many clients that I have worked with who are so stressed out by awkward conversations that they would rather take a pass on a promotion than deal with it.

Here are some basics to get you started.

Overarching Precept #1: People are not jerks. Most people don’t set out to do things intentionally that someone is going to want to yell at them about. It is more likely a misunderstanding, an interpretation issue, or perhaps some of the facts are missing.

Overarching Precept #2: Assume the best. If there are two ways to interpret a situation, then take the positive angle. If someone is late every day, assume that they have a good reason until otherwise proven.

Avoid the problem: clarify expectations/rules. You can’t expect people to follow the rules if they don’t know them. Some rules might be implicit – like get to work on time. Other rules, like how volatile a contentious meeting might go, are typically modeled or moderated by the leader in the room. This is where being consistent can avoid problems.

Act immediately. Don’t assume that an issue will “work itself out.” Or that it’s “not that big of a deal.” If it is a trifling matter, then dealing with it will take no time at all. Much better to nip it in the bud than to spend hours (weeks!) resolving something that’s blown up into something significant.

Be consistent. Address issues immediately, all the time. If your team knows that you are going to have their back when it comes to conflict, then they will be more likely to bring up things early. In addition, you model the range of acceptable behavior in the workplace. Be consistent with how you deal with clients, customers, colleagues, and management so that your team knows what is expected. You set the tone.

Communicate. Trust is a big theme around leadership these days. If your team trusts you, they are more likely to bring up issues before they become obnoxious. Open communication tells your team that you value them, and it also gives them a chance to provide ideas for solutions or new approaches. This back and forth allows for conflicts or concerns to be aired very early on, so they can be sorted much more easily.

Avoid dramatic confrontations. If someone brings an issue to your attention, respond with the long-view in mind. Reacting with anger or frustration will only mean that no one will ever bring you anything again. It helps to think of an conflict as a logic puzzle or research project – it takes the emotion out of it. Find out what’s going on, all the details from this person’s perspective. You might need a bit of time to process what’s to be done, or perhaps you need to bring in others involved.

Remember, it’s not about you – it’s about moving the team forward in a proactive and productive manner. And if you take a new role and step into a mess, then it’ll take you some time to sort it out.

It might seem obvious, but teams are made up of people – and all of the fun, delightful, and awkward bits, included.