One of the most universal challenges that I experience with leaders is how challenging it is to have “crucial conversations”. Many people avoid conflict and dislike it when they are in conflict situations. This can make it very difficult to face situations where the conflict arises through their own action, for instance, when your responsibility requires that you hold someone accountable. As one of my executive coaching clients stated, “This has always been the thing I hate the most about my job. I have learned to do it because I had to, but I still hate doing it.” What might be surprising is that this client has worked in crisis situations in relation to his work that were full of tension, even where life and death were at stake, but giving difficult feedback is still felt to be the hardest part of their job!
A few “hints” that might help you in this area:
You don’t create the tension. It was already there! For instance, a team is usually already aware of a poor performer and there is tension there among the team already. When you give honest feedback to the individual this tension will arise, but you didn’t create the tension.
Your intentions have a huge impact on how these situations unfold. If your intentions are good, and you have these conversations with “a spirit of helpfulness” it will go a long way.
If you are tense or guarded yourself when having these conversations it will be perceived and others may misinterpret your intentions. It is paramount that you learn to be centered, relaxed, and clear in your intentions. When people perceive that your intentions are good, it creates a space where they can more easily integrate what they might learn from the tension.
Don’t “own” the tension that belongs to another. Create a space in your life where you can allow tension to exist, but do not take on the tension that exists when others are being made aware of something that might make them uncomfortable. This can include “performance” issues that they might be aware of OR blind spots that they are not aware of within themselves. You not being clear about whose tension it is “contaminates” the situation and makes it more difficult for you to maintain a supportive stance toward the person. You stop being “your best self”.
Watch your assumptions, for instance, if you are surprised by a situation going much better than you thought it might. This might reveal an assumption about how bad you thought it was going to go. You carry those assumptions with you and they can limit how powerful and present you are at these important times.
Having the capacity to create tension that facilitates learning is an important executive skill that comes with practice. It can be applied at the team as well as the individual level. Executive coaching can be a powerful ally in helping you strengthen this skill.
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