By Stefanie Stern
An interview with TNP Principals Scott Philips and Ed Johnson on the importance of having the hard conversations.
Confrontation. For many of us, that word makes our palms a bit sweaty. Having hard conversations with our colleagues, employees, or bosses is far from the top of our “preferred activities” list. More than that, we avoid them because of fear, feelings of incompetence, or because it’s simply easier not to rock the boat.
I’m privileged to work with two TNP principals who are truly gifted in the art of the “tough conversation”. I sat down with them this month to get the scoop on their philosophies and practical advice on effective truth-telling. My hope is that their words inspire you to have courage and fresh perspective in approaching what is perhaps the most difficult thing to do in the workplace.
Both of you are required to “hold up the mirror” for people in your line of work, which often means exposing issues that are highly sensitive or personal (but necessary to address if a company is going to move forward). How do you tell the truth in the right way?
Ed: Part of it is reading the other person; part of it is how well you know the individual – this gives you a clue of how to approach a hard conversation. But in all cases, compassion is key. Some things can be extremely sensitive and compassion works in every situation. Be direct, try to be neutral, have compassion, and try to be empathic without being sympathetic.
Scott: In everything we do, we begin with the end in mind (Stephen Covey). We also have to recognize that we’re working with organizations for the sake of their transformation; this has to be at the foundation of speaking truth. We have an obligation both to the leaders and the individuals to help them become the best they can be.
When I think of speaking truth effectively, three things come to mind: 1.) Don’t couch things unnecessarily; be direct 2.) Like Ed mentioned, approach each conversation with compassion and 3.) Don’t just provide them with feedback or information; provide them with the courage to take action where action is needed. Truth, compassion, and courage. If we don’t speak truth with compassion and courage, we won’t be able to get people where they want to go. We want to think the best of others and seek to understand before seeking to be understood.
Where did you learn how to truth-tell well?
Ed: For me, it was through experience. It was an evolution of not doing it that way, and experiencing results that were less than desirable. It was just a learning process. There were times I knew I needed to have a hard conversation and I didn’t. I realized I needed to change that in order to be more effective.
Scott: I was the recipient of several poor conversations through the years and I learned that it feels really bad when people come at you with an agenda instead of personal care. I learned that was not an approach I wanted to take with others. It is an odd balance of taking care of your colleague, while also being comfortable enough in your own skin to share hard truth with them. I also learned the hard way that if you avoid speaking the truth at times to spare people’s feelings, it can often come back to bite you. The directness is important.
Are there any philosophies you live by when going into a particularly hard conversation?
Ed: Yes. I will think about the end point (what the ultimate goal is), but I’ll also prepare notes so that I’m not hesitant during the conversation. I want to make sure I can stay on task without being derailed when someone starts throwing up objections or taking the conversation away from the main points. You also have to provide enough time for feedback so that people can express themselves before you move forward.
Scott: Typically, there are a couple things I do. First, I create a list of questions that I want to ask. When people respond to questions, it helps put them at ease. It is a conversation and your key to success is engaging them in it; asking questions brings their voice to the table. Second, I always want to have clear outcomes in mind (what are you looking to accomplish in the conversation?) Articulating those outcomes to the person at the beginning of the conversation is vitally important. This keeps both of us focused on the most important elements. Also, it’s often a good idea to have a second person present that knows the situation well to be an extra set of ears.
Ed: I think an extremely important element, and a trait we both share, is that we genuinely care about people. That’s so important. And we do. We genuinely care.
Why is it hard for leaders, or even other interim executives to do this?
Scott: Because most people have a ‘horse in the race’ and there’s lots of fears and risks – job, bonus, relationships, promotions, ease of life, etc. They have something to lose. Therein lies the biggest reason – the potential for loss.
Ed: I agree with everything Scott said. And also, a lot of people just plain don’t like conflict and they haven’t learned how to have those conversations without emotion.
You recently worked with a client that had several challenges that needed to be brought to the surface. I know it weighed heavily on both of you. Tell me about how you prepared for that meeting with them.
Ed: We were faced with identifying a lot of negative things and again, we just tried to position the conversation to be productive, compassionate, and not hardened in the delivery of the information. We wanted to stay positive, but fully deliver the message of the negative impact that was happening in the organization and what needed to be overcome. I was pleasantly surprised at how well they took it, based on the amount and nature of the feedback. I think it felt like a sigh of relief for them and provided them license to be much more free and open. The elephant in the room was called out, so to speak. The door was opened to more sharing.
Scott: We basically said what no one else was saying out loud. We talked about their culture of intimidation and lack of dialogue. We shared that in order for them to be effective, they needed to change. Creating a safe place for dialog and modeling openness allowed everyone the freedom to share their thoughts with each other. It didn’t happen initially, but by the end of the meeting there was a different vibe. I heard from someone in the organization just this week who said that the open conversations have continued. It may be painful to have that initial conversation, but at the end, people will actually be delighted that you took them through that dark tunnel.
If you are not in a place where you are comfortable “telling the truth” well, how do you get there? What groundwork needs to be laid?
Scott: It starts with knowing yourself and your own personal fears and being comfortable with who you are. You need to recognize too that if are shunned, rejected or even fired for speaking truth, it’s not the end of the world. The benefits of truth, with compassion and courage are nearly always more significant than the potential risks. It really comes down to dealing with fears – of rejection, of looking stupid, of hurting feelings, etc. And then practicing truth telling.
Ed: Again, identifying the “there” is key and gearing your conversation around that as a grounding place. It may even require role-playing to feel better or more confident about the approach. It sounds hokey, but it’s really effective. The more you practice something, the higher your confidence level and the better you become at that skill.
Any final thoughts?
Scott: Be brave, recognize that you are valuable no matter what the response and know that those who learn this skill are some of the most powerful leaders there are.
Ed: Care about others and they will respond well to truth.