The tough discussions we’re avoiding (and how to deal with them)


Why tough discussions are essential for growth and how, with the right strategies, we can transform them into opportunities for positive change.

Let's face it: tough discussions are uncomfortable. That's why we always avoid them, whether with team members, managers, spouses, or even ourselves. The reasons for avoidance are deeply human - fear of conflict, not wanting to hurt others, and sometimes, not wanting to face our truths. But avoidance only leads to more significant issues brewing beneath the surface.

Last year, I had my share of tough discussions. With coaching clients, these conversations often revolved around challenging them to look beyond their immediate constraints and get out of their comfort zone. Similarly, during my last role, I had to deliver candid feedback on their performance to several team members. These discussions were about pointing out areas for improvement and communicating the company's expectations clearly and transparently.

Perhaps the most challenging conversation I had was a discussion with myself I'd been avoiding for quite some time. It was about re-evaluating my career path and life choices, questioning whether I was fulfilling my potential and living in alignment with my values. This introspection wasn't easy, and my wife provided the support I needed.

The irony is that the very discussions we avoid are often the most necessary. They are the catalysts for change, growth, and improved understanding. In a professional setting, challenging discussions can lead to more straightforward objectives, better team dynamics, and a more robust and successful business.

How to Have Tough Discussions

1 - Set clear and measurable expectations

Before diving into a discussion, knowing what you want to achieve is crucial. This process begins with setting clear and measurable expectations, which serve as a roadmap for the conversation. It's about outlining the desired outcomes and understanding the actions and behaviours necessary to get there. Too often, I've seen managers disappointed with team members not behaving as expected, only to find out they never actually told their team members how to behave. Or even worse, disillusioned managers scaling their expectations to the team members' level and stop challenging them altogether.

Instead, defining success in specific terms would be best - perhaps meeting certain project deadlines or improving a specific skill. This clarity prevents the conversation from going into vague or unproductive territories. Moreover, having these measurable goals allows both parties to track progress post-discussion, providing a tangible way to evaluate the effectiveness of the conversation.

2- Frequent, minor tough discussions

Regularly engaging in smaller, challenging conversations is a strategy that yields significant benefits over waiting for "the big talk". This proactive approach involves addressing issues as they arise rather than allowing them to accumulate into a daunting, emotionally charged situation. For example, providing immediate feedback on a project's progress or a team member's approach can prevent minor issues from escalating into major problems.

This method reduces the emotional load for everyone involved and cultivates an environment where open communication and continuous feedback become the norm. By normalising these dialogues, team members become more comfortable giving and receiving constructive criticism. This ongoing process of minor adjustments and course corrections fosters a dynamic work environment where challenges are met with agility and resilience, ultimately leading to a more efficient, cohesive, and supportive team culture.

3 - Have someone to keep you accountable

The role of a mentor, peer, or coach in maintaining accountability cannot be overstated. This individual acts as a sounding board, offering guidance and a unique perspective that might be missing when we're too close to a situation. Their external viewpoint helps reassess our approaches and strategies, ensuring we're on the right track.

More importantly, they serve as a source of motivation and support. In moments of hesitation or self-doubt, this person can offer encouragement to initiate tough conversations. Perhaps crucially, they provide the necessary push to confront issues we might otherwise avoid. This could involve challenging us to address a long-standing problem within the team or finally having that difficult conversation with a business partner. Their role is to ensure that we don't just recognise the need for these discussions but follow through on them. In essence, having someone to keep you accountable transforms the often daunting task of engaging in challenging discussions into a more manageable and structured process, ultimately leading to personal and professional growth.

Embracing tough discussions

In conclusion, while tough discussions can be inherently uncomfortable, they are an indispensable part of growth and progress in both our personal and professional lives. Last year's experiences taught me that avoiding these conversations only delays the inevitable and often magnifies the issues. Through direct, honest, and timely discussions, we solve immediate problems and set the stage for a more open, resilient, and dynamic environment.

Whether setting clear expectations, engaging in frequent minor conversations, or having someone to hold us accountable, each strategy plays a crucial role in facilitating these challenging discussions. They help transform potentially daunting conversations into opportunities for growth and improvement.

Remember, the goal of these discussions isn't just to confront or critique but to foster an atmosphere of trust, respect, and mutual growth. By embracing these challenging conversations, we open the doors to deeper understanding, stronger relationships, and enhanced performance. So, let's not shy away from these tough discussions. Instead, let's approach them as essential steps on our journey towards becoming more effective leaders, better team players, and more fulfilled individuals.