Here is a distinct pattern we see over and over again in the leadership development training programs we run: when leaders face a difficult conversation, a feedback conversation or a performance review, most cover 85, 90 or 92% of the content of what they want to say in the conversation but a funny thing happens when they get to the more difficult part of the conversation, what we call the Last 8%. When they hit this part of the conversation – where there are consequences to what they are saying – they start to notice that the other person is becoming more anxious and (because emotions are infectious) they themselves become more anxious.
What often happens next is the other person pushes back a bit and questions the leader and the leader starts to question themselves about whether they have their facts straight. It is at this stage when many, out of anxiety, avoid as opposed to approach the Last 8% of the conversation and never tell the other person the entire feedback they have for them. The conversation ends and both individuals leave thinking they had the full conversation. Of course, they never did.
Yet neither fully comprehends it. First, the person on the receiving end can’t read the leaders mind and so walks away thinking they had the full conversation. The leader thinks they talked about most of what they wanted to talk about and deludes themselves into thinking they had the full conversation.
The problem rears its head a month or two later when the direct report is still doing what the leader thought he or she suggested they should stop doing and the leader becomes frustrated. The direct report is confused and doesn’t understand why their leader is acting so passive aggressively: ‘didn’t the performance review go well?’ they wonder. The problem is that they never had the Last 8% conversation.
George Bernard Shaw said: the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it took place.
A big part of our Three Conversations of Leadership is being clear about whether we are having our Last 8% conversations. And then working on learning how to step in and have these more difficult parts of our conversations. It is not easy. If you are like the vast majority of people we work with in leadership training programs, know that you are not alone. The good news is that these are learnable skills and with a little courage and a bit of structure, you can start to feel proud that you stepped in and had more of your Last 8% conversations.
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