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The Proteus Leader Show #40: Having Tough Conversations

Erika speaks candidly with her friend and business partner, Jeff Mitchell, about the importance of curiosity based questions and listening skills, during tough conversations with colleagues.

Intro: 00:01 You're listening to the Proteus Leader Show with Erika Andersen, where you'll get practical tools and insights for leading, managing and staying ready for the future. Erika is the founding partner of Proteus, a firm that focuses uniquely on leader readiness. A nationally known executive coach and bestselling author, you may already know her as one of the most popular leadership bloggers on Ready for something you can use today? Here's Erika.

Erika: 00:30 Hello everyone and welcome back to the Proteus Leader show. Today's guest is my longtime business partner and dear friend, Jeff Mitchell. Jeff is the president of Proteus and the creative mind that continually catalyzes our evolution as an organization. He works with clients all over the world, supporting them to become better leaders and build better organizations. So Jeff, thank you so much for being here again with me on the show.

Jeff: 00:56 Yeah, I'm so glad to be here and I sound like a pretty cool guy, so thanks for that introduction.

Erika: 01:02 Yeah, you are a pretty cool guy and also you're really skilled at having difficult conversations. I've seen this over the years and I think think a lot about how to do it. And I've created our model for helping people to do that. And I know that most leaders, most people have a hard time having controversial or confrontational conversations. And I'd love you to share your wisdom in this area for the benefit of our listeners, so are you up to that?

Jeff: 01:31 Ready to go.

Erika: 01:32 Okay. So let's start in a kind of counter-intuitive place. What do you see as the benefits of having tough conversations?

Jeff: 01:42 Well, if I can adjust the question slightly, it would be what are the benefits of having tough conversations effectively? Because there are some people who avoid them and some that dive into them, but don't get the value out of making that leap. So, for the people who hold back from having them or put them off and it ends up being an indefinite putting off what they miss out on is all the productivity and relationship boost that comes from putting the dead fish on the table. You know, it's almost everyone who seeks help from us and then has the conversation circles back to us with some story that begins and ends with, Okay, it wasn't as bad as I thought the relationship rift and we've changed the dynamics so that we're getting a higher level of impact where we want to have impact. It just - it breaks the log jam.

Erika: 02:44 Yeah. Okay. So they see that actually having done it, if they do it reasonably skillfully, solves more problems than they hoped that it would even.

Jeff: 02:54 Yes, exactly. And the over-focus on how it might go wrong or how they want to avoid hurting the other person's feeling or having them lash out that sometimes blocks them from seeing past breaking the log jam when things really are elevated, like you said.

Erika: 03:16 That's a really good point. Yes, I've seen that over and over. I wonder - sometimes it seems to me also that when people don't have a difficult conversation, it just kind of grows in their minds. It becomes like the con seems worse and the positions seem farther apart. It just sort of takes on an unrealistically huge, you know, magnitude.

Jeff: 03:42 I think that's exactly true. And that just makes it even harder to take the leap and have the conversation. So the longer you wait, the harder it will be to take that step.

Erika: 03:51 Yeah. So talk for a minute about the other side. So having overcome that and used some of the help you're going to give, what are - what happens that's good and people can do this tough conversation, well.

Jeff: 04:07 So for the people who aren't resistant to just diving into a tough conversation but maybe aren't as effective as they should be, the way they benefit, if they make the effort to be skillful is they get the change they're looking to have happen. You know, when they're jumping into, let's have this tough conversation, let's put it on the table, they have an end in mind. And if they don't do things effectively, that rarely happens. In fact, it helps the other person have reasons to dig in even further or have negative perceptions of the tough conversation prompter. So then the change doesn't happen.

Erika: 04:51 Yeah. Okay. Do you feel like people really can, most people can learn to do this reasonably well?

Jeff: 05:04 I do. I do. I think it's a set of skills, part mindset part how you speak and part how you listen.

Erika: 05:12 Okay. Well, so what I think that belief that, uh, I can't do this. There's no way - I don't know how to do this - is what makes it makes it difficult. What are some of the other things that make it hard about having these kinds of conversations? Sharing difficult news. Taking a tough stand...

Jeff: 05:32 Yeah. I think, uh, so let's start with mindset. The tape that's playing in your head about the other person, about yourself, about the situation, uh, the level of optimism in your head that this could turn out, that tape is a pretty good predictor of how the conversation's going to go. So you gotta get your, control over that. You have supportive self-talk that you're coaching yourself in your head to be, open and patient and respectful with the other person. And, yet also, firm and direct with your own point of view. So the, the mindset has to be there and that's hard for people. People sometimes want to feel right about the other person being wrong, and that's a stuck place that's hard to get out of.

Erika: 06:25 Oh, that's great. Yes. Feel right about the other person being wrong. Yeah. That's a big stumbling block, I think. What else? What else makes it hard do you think for us to have these kinds of conversations?

Jeff: 06:35 Well, I think the, typically what the other person says has a way of, particularly initially when you put it on the table, as a way of triggering a reaction in us, that is connected to why it's hard to have the conversation in the first place. You know, you're worried they're going to say something like, it's not their fault, it's someone else's. They're not taking accountability, that triggers you. Like there you go again, or they act like they're surprised and you think they know full well what you're talking about. And so that triggers a skepticism, so I think the triggering piece and - that's if you have both a behavior you can do and we suggest people listen that they actively, share their understanding of what the other person is trying to communicate. Play it back. We call it restating. So you can, you have something to do that's supportive of having a good conversation and you maintain self-talk that is not jumping to conclusions that you stay open with your mindset. Those two things help you manage the triggers.

Erika: 07:49 Wow. Yeah. And I mean we talk about this all the time and they're so powerful. I never, I'm not sure I ever thought about that way as here's an alternative because one, you know, you used that word trigger and when we get triggered we get triggered - both mentally where we start thinking, Oh, that person all is there and they know - and we start getting triggered emotionally we feel defensive or angry or resistant. And, what you're saying I think is that if you can hear and manage yourself, talk back to I need to stay engaged, I need to stay neutral, I need to understand where they're coming from, you know, whatever works for you. And then literally listen, an actual behavior that you can do that it gives you something to do other than just follow those triggers down into a bad place that ruins the whole conversation.

Jeff: 08:37 Yeah, that's a great way to summarize it. And, and I think - I like to have in my mind a visual of how animals deal with conflict because we are animals and there are ways that you can signal I'm not interested in fighting right now. I'm interested in connecting, clarifying, getting back on track, being productive. You can do that in your tone of voice, in the way you posture yourself. I think truly listening sends a strong signal of I respect you. I'm not here to be in a fight. And you know, I also, I'm a person too, so it's, it's assertive and receptive at the same time.

Erika: 09:19 Wow, that's great. So, as you know, my second question was what's hardest? And my third question was, what's your practical advice? And you're already giving practical advice, which is great. So you're talking about what's hard, here's how to work against that. So I'd love for you to keep going down that path of - I think people, I think our listeners were really feel helped by having - okay what do I do in these situations? Because they're absolutely universal. They come up for all of us. So what else? How else would you help our listeners understand how to, how to behave and then how to react in these kinds of situations?

Jeff: 09:59 Well, so I'll anchor the first two things. Thing one is to have a tape in your head that's supportive of you having a productive conversation. So as you tune into what you're saying to yourself before you start the conversation, and even during the conversation, if it's blameful or threatening or you're feeling defensive, you're going to have to have supportive self-talk. You can plug in. So something like, um, you know, I can make the most progress in this conversation if I can really show I understand their perspective or I need to understand their perspective before I can get them to understand mine, something like that. Then there's a listening piece. The way to do that effectively is to summarize your understanding of what the other person has said without judgment, without your point of view mixed in and briefly, you know, just keep it short - so you're surprised that I'm bringing this up. Yes. And then that's the, when you hear that Yes or the Right or You Got It and nothing more after that, that's an invitation to share your point of view or to ask a follow-up question to continue adding to your understanding. I think that dance of let them speak as you listen and then they'll signal with that, yes, you're following me. Yes, you got it. That's the signal. It's your turn to share and there'll be more likely to listen. Seeing those signals is, I think really important in a tough conversation. Do you find that as well?

Erika: 11:36 Yes, absolutely. And I was thinking that I really have found over the years in a difficult situation when I've listened, when I really listened, as you say, I stop, I fully take it in. I restate, I summarize what they're saying without mixing in mind, how could you possibly be surprised? But you know, Oh, so you're surprised I'm bringing this up. You know, just do it really neutrally. The other person is much more likely to come down in their emotional, in effect and listen as well. So totally agree with that. And what do you recommend when that doesn't work? When the other person is still in combat mode and they, and they're not coming, coming down emotionally and not listening to you?

Jeff: 12:17 Well, I think what I've seen work best for myself and, and others is just keep listening until they feel heard. And here's some reasons why people might not feel heard. There may be a long history of bringing this up either with you or with others and it hasn't been heard. And so they really just got a burn off a lot of fuel before they can relax. You know, they've been carrying this for a while. Also there's a lot of - most of us are not perfect listeners, so we're going to slip up a little bit and maybe add a zinger or two. Oh, so you're surprised that I'm bringing this up even though we talked about it last week? That little zinger is going to prompt a little defensiveness, but you can, you can bounce back if you just listen all the way to the other person saying some form of yup, that's my point and nothing more after that. Then when you do share your point of view, it's important to be that same neutral and direct and be as fact based as possible. There's no reason here to try to settle scores with making sure they know how angry you are and make them feel as bad as you feel or as nervous as you feel. It's just stick to the facts and uh, make sure they know where you're coming from. And then I generally - it starts to become a more constructive conversation. They feel heard. You've been really clear about your perspective and now you can start working on finding common ground.

Erika: 13:55 That's great. Okay, so the, so what I'm taking away from this, and this is such a clarification of things that I've, I mean, you know, you and I try and do this a lot and have done for years is that, you know, it starts internally. It starts with you managing your own mindset and then listening, the first step when you're, when you need to say something difficult or confrontational or tough to someone, is to listen. That you will almost always be more likely to have a good conversation, get a good response if you start out genuinely trying to figure out where they are starting.

Jeff: 14:31 And to build on that. I think the, when you listen, really listen, you shift a little, you know, your perceptions of the other person, they're less of a jerk because you kind of have their perspective, Oh, I didn't know that. Or little roundness. You also feel more confident. You were able to manage your emotions and you're, you're gonna kind of be thinking, okay, I can, I can handle this or this could go a good direction. So your optimism rises and the opportunity for constructive conclusion rises in the same fashion. Now, that doesn't mean, as, you know, handling a tough conversation effectively doesn't mean you're on the other side of a happy rainbow. You know, the conversation is tough for a reason. There is accountability to be accepted. There is a tough decision to be delivered. There is a change in role, whatever. It doesn't mean everyone's going to be happy. It just means the communication was effective. And you're, it's as good a situation as it can be.

Erika: 15:35 Yes. That both of you are more likely to be able to work your way to an acceptable outcome. Yeah, that's good. Well, this is great. Okay. So, um, you know, I always say I'll keep these short, so I'll keep this short and thank you so much Jeff. I love having these kinds of conversations with you.

Jeff: 16:01 And let's go have some tough conversations. Let's go.

Erika: 16:04 Yeah. Listeners, if you'd like to find out more about this key skill, you can just go to and choose the Tough Conversations topic. Thank you for being with us today as always, and until next time, here's to creating the life you truly want.

Outro: 16:22 We hope you're feeling better equipped to create the career, the business and the life you want. For more insights and tools for leadership and management, join us Have an excellent day and thanks for listening.