Guest Blog: Difficult Conversations: A Failure to Communicate

Earlier this month Becky Dannenfelser and Conni Todd presented a workshop based on our book, Tough Talk: Ten Tips for Disarming Difficult Conversations to the PMI Atlanta Chapter. It was a great evening and Becky and Conni truly appreciated the interactions with the audience who were very sophisticated and engaged with the topic. And a special thanks to Mike Ososki for the following article which originally appeared here

“Communicating Success at Work”: October Dinner Meeting Summary

 by Mike Ososki, PMP, Communications Committee, PMI Atlanta

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate,” the classic line from 1967’s movie Cool Hand Luke, is timeless. This pronouncement rings as true today as ever—probably more so. (And isn’t it ironic, as we enjoy more means to communicate than ever before?)

Monday night’s Dunwoody Dinner tackled this issue in the workplace context, led by Becky Dannenfelser and Conni Todd of Clearwater Consulting Group. Their objectives were to identify the most prevalent tough conversations, give tips to disarm them, and share a framework to prepare.

Susan Scott asserts “The person who can most accurately describe reality without laying blame will emerge the leader.” Seems like a noble goal well worth pursuing—and extremely challenging. But it is very much in your best interest to strive for this mindset. Consider that those most confident to address high-stakes conversations are most likely to enjoy promotions, higher pay, and better reputations.

Are you afraid to talk about it? You’re not alone: 70% of employees currently face difficult conversations with peers, managers, and reports. Just 31% of managers think they are skilled to deal with conflict, and only 21% of their reports believe their manager is skilled at this task. It’s tougher for women, as only 13% of them feel confident in their ability to tackle tough communication issues at work.

No one is in a vacuum, and your work culture plays a big part. According to Conni and Becky, 44% of executives believe that their organization has a candid environment. The rest have a bigger issue, and as George Bernard Shaw so insightfully observed, “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Beware of company cultures rife with attitudes of blame, complaints and criticism, lack of accountability, hidden agendas, and silos.

Why do we avoid difficult conversations? Most basically, it’s fear. Fear of retaliation, looking dumb, or just negative feelings. Sometimes it’s the win/lose, either/or competitive mindset. No one wants to be “the loser.” It always helps to sharpen our skills. At work, perhaps the most challenging topics are: 1) Performance reviews, 2) Negotiation, 3) Peer-to-peer accountability, and 4) Poor leadership.

Performance reviews can be déjà vu, with 43% of employees hearing the same negative feedback year after year. And 87% of employees leave their review with no plan of action. TIP: Start with yourself. Create a 90-day plan to improve. Share it with your boss and peers. Be transparently accountable.

Some gender notes: 8 of 10 men feel the need to be careful and indirect in providing feedback to women, while 8 of 10 women want direct feedback. Women can negotiate excellently for others, poorly for themselves, and have the hardest time negotiating with other women. Both genders struggle to negotiate limits, pay increases, and changes in performance elements. TIP: Know what you’re worth. Use the salary wizard at Get the facts and be prepared to educate, inform, and share.

Of 12,000 work teams surveyed, 2/3 rated peer-to-peer accountability with the lowest score. While a whopping 93% feel that a coworker doesn’t do their fair share, just a tiny 10% speak up. This recipe can only promote bitter dysfunction. Don’t tolerate; instead, prepare well, then gently confront. TIP: Go first. Clarify roles and expectations. Make a public commitment to what others can count on you for. Accountability is mutual agreement with clear goals and roles.

Our intrepid Eleanor Roosevelt declared, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you must stop and look fear in the face.” When your boss is the problem, you can ignore it, talk to HR, or tackle it directly.TIP: Take the lead and ask your team for feedback: peers, managers, and reports.

Perhaps the best advice before having a difficult conversation is to prepare. Do your homework and ask questions like these: Who is your audience? How aware are they of the situation? What are their values, your values, and their risk to clash? How about the generational perspective? Always strive to be self-aware of your own tendencies to avoid, accommodate, compete, collaborate, compromise, etc.

What are the facts? (Facts include feelings: what are theirs, and yours?) Is there a pattern? What might you have done to contribute to the situation? What’s your motivation? What do you really want—and NOT want—from the conversation? What do you imagine the other person wants? What might be some mutual goals? What would be the “rose” vs. “thorns” in the discussion?

Whew, that’s a lot to take in and think about, but well worth your effort as you prepare to constructively break (melt?) the ice and heal the pain of a difficult situation. It’s a delicate dance of subtle balance. You will do well to take each step with deep and deliberate consideration, with potential flames unfanned by blame and critical judgment. Attitude is everything. You can do this.