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The Art of Uncomfortable Conversation

The Art of Uncomfortable Conversation
on 03 July 2017

Opinion by Janine Lazarus, Director of Janine Lazarus Media Consultancy

The proverbial elephant in the room seems to be taking up more space at each workshop I facilitate, with delegates doing their level best to side step and shadow box around it, or to make it their sole mission to steer clear of unpalatable subject matter.

But the harder they try to sweep awkward issues under the corporate carpet, the more attention they draw to it. And, like liquid in a simmering pressure cooker, an unwelcome boiling over of emotions is pretty much an inevitability.

The result: A communications failure of the most catastrophic kind that, like a creeping cancer, will weave its way through the corridors and spill out into the public arena.

We live in politically charged, unpredictable and self-serving times. This, coupled with a diversity of cultures, values and beliefs, and a melting pot of egos and unpredictable behaviour patterns, can be a recipe for disaster for any business.

So, how do you handle Disruptive Dialogue in the workplace? Or perhaps more to the point, is it possible to master the Art of Uncomfortable Conversation?

Each and every client I work for is as unique as their business offering. It's what makes my job in communications that much more exciting as I encounter as many personality types as the services they provide. Given the varied characters and business approaches, there simply cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution to communication issues.

When a lot of people work collectively in a department, there is bound to be some sort of confrontation. Some may become aggressive and confrontational, while others may keep their feelings to themselves, only to explode a few months later. Then there are the silent types: those individuals who internalise their thoughts and feelings, and just shut down.

Well-meaning team work activity conducted outside the office may seem like a lot of fun, but there are those individuals for whom it will be too much of an ask. Forcing employees to take part in an off-site physical activity may not be the magic cure-all to forming a cohesive team.

Take me as an example. I'm a straight shooter and can generally navigate around most conversations, but ask me to participate in team work activity and I withdraw. It's not my shtick and I am horribly uncomfortable around it.  

Individuals are exactly that - individuals. Each one of them has their own hopes and dreams and their own fear of failure. So is there some way to expect these individuals to work together as a team towards one common purpose?

To my mind, having facilitated communication-related programmes to many individuals and groups, from interns to C-suites, I can tell you this: Avoiding uncomfortable conversation will result in massive barriers to communication and to what may become insurmountable obstacles for any business.

Desperately trying to tip toe around the 'egg shells' of transformation, a clash of cultures and the very real fear of change, has the diametrically opposite result of what may have been initially well intended. It can cost an organisation dearly in the long run.

Think along the lines of project failures, absence from work, a decrease in productivity and a high staff turnover – all of which impact on the organisation's bottom line.

My beloved late mother lived by this simple adage: Face the demon in his eye and you reduce its size.

It has now become critical to be courageous enough to have uncomfortable conversations in the work place. Constructive and carefully facilitated confrontations can result in pivotal conversations necessary to bring about much needed change.

Yes, it can be painful. But dealing with the aftermath of evasion can be even worse.

How many hours a week does your company spend dealing with conflict and internal politics? What are you doing to change or prevent an adverse situation? Are you tackling Disruptive Dialogue head-on?

I'm loathe to quote famous authors as their words belong to them as individual wordsmiths, but it's worth making an exception to this rule here. Simon Sinek, the author best known for Start With Why said: “When people are financially invested, they want a return. When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute.”

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