Seek First to Understand: Difficult Conversations that Lead to Connection
We’ve all had them. Difficult conversations in the workplace. They can be awkward or even unpleasant, but these conversations are inevitable and important in any workplace dynamic. This is more relevant today with all that’s happening in the world and the workplace (employees dealing with pandemic-related grief; conflicts surrounding inequality and discrimination; and other crises that have frayed nerves and opened new and old wounds). Managers and supervisors, along with Human Resource professionals play a key role in handling these conversations with their employees.
What’s the best way to have difficult conversations about difficult topics in the workplace? Here is an important quote to keep in mind when having a difficult conversation with anyone: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” In Stephen Covey’s well-known book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey explains this concept: Seek first to understand means staying quiet and listening. Let the other person explain their point of view before you speak. Seek to understand their point of view first. Understanding does not mean agreement. Simply listen and understand. You don’t necessarily have to agree with what the other person is saying.
Only then can you seek to be understood. Now that you have listened to the other person and they feel that you understand them, you can begin sharing your point of view. You can seek to be understood, but know you don’t have to convince the other person that you are “right.”
Discussing race and discrimination in the workplace
Increasing empathy, psychological safety and taking the time to address race issues will help bridge current race-based disconnects in the workplace. When facilitating open and honest dialogue, emphasize that the purpose of getting together is to discuss, not to debate or disagree. Treat open discussions about race similar to discussions about job performance. This means avoiding blame or attribution and stick to the facts. Focus
only on behaviors. In today’s climate, more and more organizations are taking proactive steps to eradicate racial discrimination in their work environment. The goal should be zero tolerance for racism.
Can we avoid workplace conflict?
The answer is, probably not. Human Resource leaders are keenly away that conflict is likely inevitable whenever employees of various ages, backgrounds and different working styles are brought together in the workplace. Conflict can be expressed as insults, non-cooperation, bullying and anger.
The negative effects of workplace conflict on employees include increased stress, work disruptions, decreased productivity, absenteeism, turnover and termination. Tensions and anxieties seem to be at an all-time high due to the current political divide and racial inequality discussions spilling over into the workplace. Effectively handling workplace conflicts and difficult conversations starts with maintaining a workplace culture focused on strong employee relations. This requires a commitment to fairness, trust and mutual respect at all levels of the organization.
Having difficult conversations may never become easy for company leaders. However, steps can be taken to make those conversations as productive as possible. Difficult conversations that are handled well become valuable learning tools for all. Over time, open dialog can help build deeper connections and understanding of both ourselves and others.
Top tips for having difficult conversations
• Don’t avoid it. Difficult conversations can become more difficult the longer you delay.
• Have a stated purpose. What do you want to get out of this conversation?
• Plan out the conversation. Have some notes, but don’t try to script the conversation. Let it flow naturally.
• Be confident, direct and specific.
• Be empathetic and open to the other person’s perspective.
• Use “I” statements.
• Observe body language. Observing someone’s body language can tell you what the other person is really feeling and saying.
• Stick to the facts. Manage your own emotions during the conversation.
• Offer constructive feedback and routinely provide feedback to employees. Try to address issues as soon as they arise.
• Allow the other person to ask questions and respond to your comments.
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Pauline Krutilla, MS, CEAP, Director EAP, Advocate Aurora Employee Assistance Program