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Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast #16: Mastering the Difficult Conversation

September 24, 2018
Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast #16: Mastering the Difficult Conversation

Most people do not enjoy having difficult conversations, but its something that needs to be done. While these conversations might come naturally to some, the majority of leaders will need to work on and develop this expertise. Listen to Episode 16 of our Executive Leadership Podcast for some tools that will help you with difficult conversations and create lasting, productive relationships with your team.

Listen to all podcasts in this series and subscribe to new episodes on iTunes or Google Play.

Read the transcript below:

Welcome to the John Maxwell Company Executive Leadership Podcast where our goal is to help you increase your level of influence, increase your reputation as a leader, and increase your ability to fully engage your team to drive remarkable results. Hi, I’m Perry Holley, a John Maxwell Company facilitator and coach and I’m Chris Goede, Vice President of The John Maxwell Company. Welcome and thank you for joining.

Chris, today’s topic is Mastering the Difficult Conversation. That’s a skill that most leaders hope they don’t need, but it’s one I found that you often have to have some expertise at. I know leading my own teams that I always hope that things go smooth from day to day communication with the team, with my peers, with my bosses at 360 degree communication, but every now and then you have to have a direct conversation with someone. And, that’s really a skill I found that you really have to develop this. It doesn’t come naturally. We don’t want to do that. What are your thoughts on that?

Well, I think you said something that’s so true that as a leader, it’s our responsibility, right? We’re going to talk a little bit about that today and it’s something that needs to be done, and so many of us will delay it or even avoid it completely. It’s just not normal for us. Well, I shouldn’t say that. It may be normal to some people. I think I’ve worked for some leaders that it was very normal for them to want to have difficult conversations with everybody. But for most of us, it’s not normal for us to have a difficult conversation. In the 5 Levels of Leadership, John Introduces this concept of the balance of care and candor and he says that if you’re always providing care with no candor, you’re really developing a dysfunctional relationship, but if you are all candor but no care, you will produce a distant relationship. And neither one of those as a leader or as a team, as an organization are good. So we need to figure out how do we balance care and candor to create lasting, productive relationships as a team member?

I often, when I think about this, whether it’s in a meetings one on one or even difficult conversation we’re talking about today, I always say these three words to leaders. You need to listen, learn, then lead. Hmm. And, oftentimes what we want to do is we hear people, we don’t learn anything and we still lead or have conversations the way we want to. And, so hopefully today we’re going to give you a little bit of extra tools in your tool belt that allow you to have a difficult conversation.

And, perhaps it’d be a great place to interject what is a difficult conversation? I think for me, looking back, I think of three situations that were the most difficult of all when you’re removing someone from your team, I think that having that, it’s a hard conversation for both you and the person that’s being asked to leave. I’ve had to deal with people with expense report issues that I needed to confront. And, I’m hoping that it was not what I thought it was. A client communicated on a client, called me once and said, I don’t like the way your sales rep talks to me. Okay, well I need to go first of all, dig underneath that and find that out, but it’s really these types of things that are not in the normal and I’ll tell you, I was invited to Europe to speak and I said, what would you like me to speak on? There were 200 managers in the room. We’d like you to talk about mastering the difficult conversation. I said, really? I couldn’t believe it. I go flying all that way for that topic. Is that really an issue? So when I got on stage, I just said, just show of hands. How many in the audience have a conversation you need to have with somebody that works for you that you have not had? Almost knocked me off the stage. Ninety percent of the hands went up. Why do you think that? Why do we not have the conversation when we need to have it?

Well, I think again, as we kind of talked about it in the intro, it’s not normal for us and as leaders, oftentimes we don’t want to engage in a conversation out of fear of what the results of that conversation will be and I think it as a leader, you lose credibility when you do not have those conversations. Right? And, so if you could keep that thought process in your mind and understand that the individual needs you to have that conversation with them, the team needs you to have the conversation with that individual and the organization needs you to have it. And, then you look at it and I would challenge you to say your leadership credibility is on the line the longer that you wait to have that. And so it’s just not natural for us. We don’t wake up every morning and get excited about going to work and having to have a conversation over one of those three things that you just mentioned, which is case and point, whether it’s domestic or international. We’re all leading the same way because over there, 90 percent of their hands went up.

I think I’ve heard John say that people know there’s a problem. They want to know that you know there’s a problem, step up to it and deal with. That’s right. One thing that was helpful to me, I want to know what is it exactly I’m addressing, what is the problem, and I defined it clearly and I wish I could attribute this like I pick it up from a coach years ago, for me, what I called it: The 3 A’s. And, it helped me to say, am I dealing with first, attitude? The second, am I dealing with an ability issue? Or the third, am I dealing with an awareness problem? So do you have a bad attitude and good ability, but you’re just not aware of your attitude? I can maybe help you with that. I can coach that. If you have an ability issue with your attitude’s great, but you’re failing in the job, then that’s a training issue. And if you’re just not aware, well then I can help make you aware, that’s the difficult conversation, but it helps me to kind of frame that up. Your thoughts on that and how it applies to the care and candor aspect that we’re looking at?

Yeah. John teaches that, you know, caring values, the person, the individual him herself, while candor values the person’s potential. And, I love your three questions. That’s a great little roadmap that as a leader I could sit down and asked myself those three questions before I have that conversation and it would almost kind of build the structure of my conversation. Before those three questions, I think you also need to ask yourself, especially I think if you’re seeing repetitive situations where you have to have difficult conversations, maybe not under the same thing or maybe it is the same thing. And, so I think the question before those three questions is, you need to ask yourself, is this a can’t or a won’t with them? And if you can answer that question, is that a can’t or won’t and then go through your 3 A’s, which I absolutely love, I think you can then have a great foundation for what you’re going to do coming out of that conversation.

We can help a can’t person to your point, you know, we can make them aware, we can help them with the ability, we can, whatever it is, if they’re a can’t, but if there won’t, we have a completely different conversation. And so I think you need to ask yourself that question. And then your three questions are great. I think also when you talk about this care versus candor and valuing the person, you have to remember that trust and care for your people on your team is the foundation to all influence that you build. And, you have to have that foundation. They have to know that you have their best interest in mind. Whether it’s a change, whether it’s a tough conversation. The first thing that people are going to think to themselves is: what did I do? Or how does this affect me? And if as a leader, you’d built a foundational level to have that trust and that care, they’re going to trust you and they’re going to know that you have their benefit in mind.

The other thing I think is about this is you’ve got to understand that you have to have these conversations because you want your team, your leadership, your organization to be in a growth mindset. And, if they don’t grow or they don’t change, they’re going to become irrelevant. And, the only way for them to grow or to changes, as a leader, your responsibility is to have those conversations with your team.

One of the things, I read in John’s writings of course, but we teach it in the 5 Levels Workshop, I always struggle with this. It said that caring would establish the relationship. Yeah, that’s kind of obvious. But he followed it with saying candor can expand the relationship. And, once I got my mind around that, I just wonder what your thoughts were about how does candor help actually expand a relationship?

Another way to put that, I’ve heard it said is find that common ground and build the care in order to establish the relationship. But that’s just not enough to grow it, right? I could find common ground with you or one of my team members and I could show them care, but our relationship’s not going to grow outside of that. The only way it’s really going to grow is if, as a leader I answered the questions that you put in front of us. I show candor with them and I have open communication. We’ll talk probably on a future podcast, a little bit about continuous feedback and open communication and what does that look like and it. You owe it to them and their potential to have that conversation. When you think about expanding the relationship, think back to some of the difficult conversations people have had with you and as long as it was done the right way, think about your relationship with that leader now versus before some of those conversations. Because coming out of it right, we’re going to grow, we’re going to learn, and on the other side of the way, while it may not be comfortable in the moment, okay, after the moment and the growth that occurs, you’re going to look back and be thankful for it. I look a little bit of a parenting, a example here. I think about when I was a child, you know, my parents didn’t know anything, right? They were completely wrong all the time, all of our tough conversations. And we had plenty of them, you know, they weren’t enjoyable. And, I look now on the other side, I’m like, wow, my parents were the smartest people on the earth, and I’m going through that right now with my 18 and 16 year old because we have leaders in my family. We’re raising them to become adults and have opinions and feedback and we’re having some difficult conversations. And, and so the only way they’re going to grow as an individual, and so take this analogy and think about as a team member as you’re leading, is to be able to have those conversations and on the other side of it, you’re going to see growth, which is going to make them relevant to your team, to the department, to the organization.

I love that. And, after I got that lesson was why am I shying away from the candor piece when it really shows how much I care is that if there’s an egregious offense of some sort, you deal with that a little different. But if we’re having, I have one individual that was having a communication problem, just very direct, upsetting everybody. Nobody wanted to work with this person. It was disruptive to the whole department. And, I just called them in and said I need to share with you the observations I’ve had and what I’m hearing seeing. They paused, I thought they were going to object. And they said nobody’s ever shared that with me. Thank you, I didn’t realize that that was the way I was being perceived and it expanded that relationship. It builds some trust and it showed that I care, which is you say, do you care about me? Can you help me? Can I trust you? The three things that it really fed that by me being bold enough to tell this person something that no one else had said, it really resonated. When I saw that I thought, they’re goign to hate me. They’re not going to hate you. They actually a thank you and as you said, think about when you’ve received it. If I can find someone in my life that will tell me the straight truth, I usually embrace them because everybody’s telling you what you want to hear. Here’s somebody that I can trust. They’ll tell me the truth about me, my blind spots, so go back to the inner circle we talked about on a previous podcast.

Just a follow on that a little bit, John said that caring should never suppress candor. Candor should never displace caring. I think we kind of circled all around that. Any final comments on that? I would just say it’s almost like when you just said that, it’s like a chicken and the egg, right? Like, you’ve got to have both. They’re both going to be there as leaders. If you’re going to lead effectively, you cannot have a sustainable leadership, legacy leadership influence with your team unless you figure out how to do both. The only thing I would challenge us there and as we move forward is make sure I go back to the comment that I said of having their best interests at heart in, in the conversation is make sure your motive is pure. You know, influence is a weird thing, right? It’s a very fine line. And I think what determines which way you fall in that line around influence and included in difficult conversations like is what is your motive behind this conversation with that individual?

I found I needed to start the candor part of the conversation with my motive and desired outcome clearly in my mind. And I learned as many of you have been married more than about an hour have learned that aving an outcome, a marriage or in a work relationship at all, it actually is lose, lose. So I have to check myself, am I trying to win and be right with this individual that works for me with this peer that I work with, I even talked to my boss, I need to have direct conversations. How am I set up with that? And then like you said, motive is really about getting to that mutual beneficial outcome. What is it I’m trying to accomplish here so that we can move forward. It’s really a great starting place. So, just to wrap things up, I was wondering if you could give maybe three or four tips on how to manage a difficult conversation.

I’ll give you some feedback that I’ve learned from John  nd being a leader in his organization for a long time and kind of some models. Before I do that, going back to even just your motive comment, that is really where the power of understanding their perspective of a situation first before having that conversation right? You talked about even before The A’s, like understanding what the true problem is and the only way as a leader, and I’ll go back I said this early on in our recording, is that you need to listen, learn, then lead. If you could just figure out how to do those three things in that order, in that order. Uour leadership, your influence, a communication conversation, developing of people, all of that would be a lot easier on you as a leader because here’s what it’s doing. It’s allowing you to their understand their perspective. Now, you might not agree with their perspective or their perspective may be skewed because they don’t have all the information that you do as a leader and that’s your responsibility to kind of guide them through that process. But if you’ll do that, your motives will stay pure and it’ll make these conversations a little bit easier.

Here’s what I would tell you is you think about these difficult conversations as we said, it’s your responsibility and it must be done. And so as a leader, you cannot shy away from that. I know it’s not natural for most of us, not normal to want to do that, but if not, remember if not, you’re hurting them as an individual and their growth. You’re hurting the team, you’re hurting the organization and you’re hurting your credibility. And so here are four things that we’ve learned from John that we keep in somewhat of a format and a structure of how we have this. We say we do it quickly, meaning that we don’t let it continue to fester, right? We try to when we see it, when we see that there is a conversation, needs to be had, we have those conversations.

We don’t sit in an audience when you’re speaking to us internationally. And all of us raised our hand saying, Hey, I need to have that conversation. We do it calmly, never, never, ever in anger. We do it privately. I’ll tell you, there’s one thing that rubs me the wrong way as a leader is when I see people having difficult conversations with their team member in front of other people in front of the team. Not the place to do it. We talk about how it takes a while to go up the levels of leadership, right? It’s a process. It takes time. You can come down very quickly. Just do that one time and see how quickly you become a Level 1 leader to that individually. Just just do it in public and then do it. Then, do it thoughtfully, right? When you listen, learn, then lead, you can be very thoughtful behind why you’re having this conversation and you can speak their language and it’ll come from the heart. And I think anytime somebody has given me  really candid feedback or had a difficult conversation, I could see that they had prepared, I could see that they were thoughtful, I could see that they had thought about how it was going to impact me. So those are four things. Do it quickly, do it calmly, do it privately, do it thoughtfully. The last thing that I would tell you is just understand that all of that is a two way street. Okay? And so I think if you want to be effective as a leader and you want to continue to grow in your influence, you must invite others to be candid with you. And leadership is a visual sport, and so we’re going to model what that looks like to receive that at times. And, so invite that with your team to have those conversations and then model it properly.

The final comment is, when I think about the 5 Levels of Leadership, I think about Level 2 and Level 3 leaders. We’re all naturally bent. We’ve talked about this before. You fall on the Level 2 side, kind of like you and I relationship or the Level 3 side to get it done, the production side, right? I often find that people that are naturally bent towards Level 3 maybe sometimes enjoy having conversations like this, right? They’re like, yes, I get to have another one of these today. And Level 2, they tend to shy away from it. They say, man, it’s not normal, but let me give you this piece of encouragement. Someone told me this, a matter of fact, one of our executive coaches, facilitator’s, Greg Kagel said to me, he said, Chris, you don’t understand the gift of having the natural bent of being a Level 2 leader is that you have established so much trust and so much change in your pocket with that team member that they’re waiting for you to have that conversation with them. They’re inviting you into that conversation and so just know this, if you have a natural bent towards Level 2 leadership and and you don’t want to have those conversations, they’re uncomfortable for you, know that that’s natural, but also know that you probably have more change in your pocket than the natural Level 3 leader would have going into that conversation, so they’re going to extend you grace. If you mess up, they’re going to listen to you. They’re going to know that you have their best interests at heart. And, I think as you said, done correctly, it will promote the relationship. It will build that relationship.

Well, that’s great stuff. Thank you for sharing that and just as a reminder to our listeners, if you’d like to learn more about the 5 Levels of Leadership or perhaps bring a 5 Levels workshop to your organization, please go to a You can leave a comment for us there. You can ask a question there and also just reminding you that if you want to know more, if you’re not clear on all the 5 Levels, Episode 1 of this podcast series is a a a full explanation. Chris takes us through the Five Levels. So, thank you for joining. This has been the John Maxwell Company Executive Leadership Podcast.

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