The Value of Difficult Conversations

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“I just want to get this over with.”

My client, Alex*, chief data scientist at a major tech company, dropped into a chair in the conference room. He moved stiffly after a long run, his stress reliever of choice before awful meetings. Like this one. Like nearly every meeting with his boss, John.

“I understand,” I said. “But you’re going to do great.”

I knew why Alex felt nervous, and I didn’t blame him. Today, in a meeting with his boss—with me standing by to help steer the conversation if necessary—Alex needed to let John know that he felt mistreated, and that Alex couldn’t live with that dynamic anymore.

It was going to be an uncomfortable conversation.

And yet, I believed that my client had everything to gain from it. Alex was brilliant, and played a critical role in the business, but his good work was being hobbled by the dynamic with his boss. Unless he brought up their problems in conversation, it was highly unlikely that things would get better—and they would likely get worse.

I’ve been repeatedly amazed by the critical importance of honest, sometimes difficult conversations to the success of a business. It is so much a part of my work with executives that I sometimes forget this incredible truth: it isn’t usually more money, more employees, or more of anything else the company doesn’t already have that will make the biggest difference to a team or to a project. Often, what can help most is the conversation, or conversations, that bring what is already present out into the open.

If everyone could show up and state their truths, wants, needs and desires at any given moment, learn to sit with others’ discomfort, and then move to action, we would all create our best selves.

This is, of course, easier said than done. In a 2013 Stanford Business School executive coaching survey, CEO’s reported that their highest area of personal development concern was learning skills for conflict management. This echoes my own experience as a coach: I’ve rarely met a leader who was entirely comfortable with one-on-one, high conflict conversations.

So rest assured: honest conversations are difficult for nearly everyone, but they are also likely to be the most valuable investment you make in your career, your team, your business.

(p.s. It worked for Alex.)

(*Alex is a fictional composite, not a real client!)

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