Stop sabotaging yourself with difficult conversations

Why do you sabotage yourself when it comes to “difficult” conversations and how can you stop doing that?

The patient says, “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.”
The doctor says, “Then don’t do that!”

When it comes to “difficult” conversations and self-sabotage, a lot of the coaching I hear sounds just like this classic chestnut. “Stop avoiding the conversation, use the skills you learned in your (crucial, difficult, whatever) conversations workshop, and everything should work just fine!”

As hard as it is to believe, this “just do it” advice almost never leads to new behavior. As a result, people continue to avoid these conversations OR they conduct the conversations using an indirect style that usually creates more problems than it resolves.

So, WHY DO people sabotage themselves when it comes to these “difficult” conversations? I hear some version of the same two reasons, over and over again.

  • A little learning is a dangerous thing – People attend a one-day workshop, get 10-15 minutes’ practice, and leave with a job aid. After the workshop, they are typically left alone to apply the skills. Many people WILL make the attempt, usually with a “safer” situation, but they never get enough practice or coaching to feel prepared for the tougher conversations.
  • I can’t say that! – I have trained leaders across three continents, but wherever I go, I always hear some version of “the rules” – the unwritten, unspoken expectations for how to act with authority figures. It is these “rules” and the associated belief that candor will lead to punishment that make these conversations “difficult.”

So, HOW CAN you stop sabotaging yourself? Here are some steps that can help you to be even more influential.

  • Get some help – Find a partner or coach who has the skill and the will needed for these conversations, and who is willing to coach you.
  • Don’t think “winning and losing” – Most “difficult” conversations are about conflicts. If you define a conflict in terms of “win/lose” you will often feel stuck – since “winning” over authority figures seems unlikely and “losing” feels dangerous. A better way to approach the conversation is to jointly solve a problem that is blocking everyone’s success.
  • Work from the other person’s viewpoint – Don’t focus on the causes of the conflict, and don’t lead with the effect this conflict has on you. If you start with the other person’s viewpoint and the effect on that person, the conversation immediately becomes a lot less difficult.
  • Don’t feel like you must have all the answers – “Don’t just bring me a problem, bring me a solution!” Most people hear this command on their first day at work. But, if you don’t believe that you have a good solution, the easy answer is to never bring the problem. However, I find that most people (even your authority figures) will work with you if you start with their viewpoint, focus on solutions, and have some ideas of your own to propose.

If you follow these half-steps, you should be well on your way to ending the self-sabotage and having more effective and influential conversations.


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