The 2 Patterns of Difficult Conversations Gone Wrong

When strong emotions and avoidance are getting in the way: How to recognize and break patterns.

David was frustrated. Again. He was attending his team’s weekly priority meeting and, while there was lots of animated discussion, there wasn’t much prioritizing going on. Their meetings lacked structure. Whatever was first on the agenda would take up 50% or more of the meeting. Whatever was at the end of the list might not get discussed at all. David liked his team and the work well enough but, he had real issues with the lack of discipline in these meetings. This wasn’t the first time he felt this way. Worse, he felt a growing animosity toward his manager who did not appreciate how hard everyone was working or how overwhelmed they were becoming by the amount on their plates. And yet, they had to endure these brutally inefficient meetings. What to do?

It was nearing nine months since David had promised himself he would have a conversation with his manager about how he felt things were going and provide her with feedback. He had fully prepared himself: had taken a course on what to say, and had a script at the ready so he would know what to say. The only problem was that he was not having the meeting. He was procrastinating. Avoiding. Why? he wondered.

After talking with a coach, it occurred to him why he was not having the conversation. Numerous times previously when having similar conversations with others, things didn’t go so well. In fact, they had gone horribly wrong. Two things happened: either he became so triggered in the middle of these difficult conversations that he would say something that upset the other person (which ruined any chance for a good conversation) or, two, he would leave the meeting not really saying everything he wanted to say. Each week that he avoided this conversation with his manager, and had to endure another unproductive meeting, left him more ashamed of himself, eating away at his confidence.

I tell you this story because it highlights two patterns we see happen over and again to people who really want to have the difficult conversation they know they need to have, but leave without it going the way they would like.

The first pattern is characterized by strong emotions sabotaging the conversation. In the middle of the conversation, the other person says something that triggers you and, before you know it, you have said something that you regret. The other person gets hot, shuts down, and the opportunity is lost.

The second pattern is characterized by avoidance. You walk into a difficult conversation and you do pretty well delivering the first 85, 90, 92% of what you want to say. But, as you get to the more difficult part of the conversation – what we call the Last 8% – the other person starts to get upset because they see where things are going, feel threatened, which infects you with their strong emotions, and, instead of continuing and having the last 8% of the conversation, you avoid it. The problem is that they can’t read your mind. They don’t know that you didn’t have the whole conversation. They actually think things are on track. On your end, you honestly feel like you had most of the conversation you wanted to have, not realizing you avoided the most difficult part, and so nothing really changes. Six weeks later you are wondering why this person hasn’t changed. And, when you act less open with them or even passive aggressively, they look at you wondering what has happened, ‘aren’t we good?’, not knowing what wasn’t communicated.

It doesn’t have to be this way. At IHHP, one of the real differentiators of our The Three Conversations of Leadership course is helping people have the Last 8% of the conversation by tuning in and managing strong emotions – yours and the other persons. Without the ability to manage strong emotions – a learnable skill – things either blow up (pattern 1) or we avoid the more difficult part of the conversation (pattern 2). People find that once they understand how to skillfully manage emotions and are aware of the importance of having the Last 8%, everything changes.

This March 6-7th you have the opportunity to experience a day of learning The Science of Emotional Intelligence followed by a day of The Three Conversations of Leadership. This one-two punch will equip you to walk into your next difficult conversation with more confidence so that you can both keep it together by managing the strong emotions in the conversation and deliver what you really want and need to deliver. When you are able to do this, you benefit. The other person benefits. And, your organization benefits. And, maybe, even your meetings benefit.

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