In my work with clients lately, four themes have come up again and again. They all have to do with having hard conversations at work — things like giving people feedback and speaking our truth. And I feel you. Talking about tough things at work — or at home — is hard.
But guess what?
The alternative is to keep your misery, judgement, fear, resentment and insecurity tucked down deep, where it will rot and fester until one day it leaks out and boom:
- You have a stress-related illness.
- You’re yelling at your colleague.
- You can’t take it any longer and quit.
But, how, Moe? How can I talk about the stuff that I don’t even know how to share?
Let me help.
Let’s break down the four most common lies we tell ourselves about having hard conversations at work. Each lie stems from a story we tell ourselves. It’s a false story, though, because something more is going on beneath our awareness.
For each story, I’ll show you how it’s a lie, give you suggestions for getting real with yourself and then I’ll tell you what to do about it. As I go through each story, ask yourself, “When was the last time I told myself this story?” and “How can understanding the lie help me build stronger relationships?”
- The First Story: “I am afraid to give [person]feedback because I don’t want to hurt/offend them.”
- The Lie: Most of us make up a story that our colleagues can’t handle our truth and will crumble underneath the message we want to convey. Get real, Johnny. Human beings are incredibly resilient, especially when we feel someone is telling us important feedback about the impact we have on them. What’s really going on here is that you don’t want to be rejected, hurt or left behind. We fear disconnection more than we fear just about anything. It drives us to keep our feedback silent even when it would help.
- Your Reality Check: Remind yourself that the story you’re making up — that they will resent, hate or leave you because of your feedback — is likely not true. Admit to yourself that it feels scary to tell them the truth because you care. Be honest with yourself that you have something at stake: you want to be in this relationship with them at work or home. There is no guarantee that sharing your feedback will help, but I can promise you that staying silent will hurt both of you. Get grounded in why you want to share the feedback.
- What You Can Do:
- Set the stage for your feedback: “Because I care about you, I have some feedback. Would you like it?”
- Be clear: “When you [their action]I felt [emotion]. I wanted you to know because I am sure you did not mean to have that impact.”
- “When you were late for our meeting, I felt disrespected.”
- “When you shared the team’s contributions but forgot to include me on the slide, I felt unseen.”
- “When you missed our 1:1 meeting three times in a row, I felt nervous and made up the story that you don’t want to meet with me because I am about to be fired.”
- “When you interrupted me in the group meeting I felt like my opinion didn’t matter.”
- Remind them that you appreciate them listening and support their on-going growth.
- The Second Story: “I’m afraid of the repercussions if I were to tell my boss what I really think, so I don’t bother.”
- The Lie: Imagine your worst fear. What evidence do you have that it is likely to happen? What are you really believing here? Do you actually think you will get fired for telling your boss the truth? Now, it’s one thing if there’s a track record of people in power mistreating those beneath them who speak truth. These cases are rare, though. More often than not, it’s the same base fear as the first story: you value the relationship and don’t want to break it. Of course, if you are planning to sling judgmental accusations like a scene from The Office, that could be hard for your boss to hear. But telling them the truth when they really need it to be effective? That is priceless.
- Your Reality Check: Stop making sh*t up. Ask yourself, is this really likely? Which is more risky, speaking your truth or continuing to stifle yourself and complain about your boss to other people? Is this side-talk helping? Okay, time to get brave.
- What You Can Do:
- Get grounded in the truth and in your courage.
- Follow steps from the first story to have an authentic and vulnerable conversation with your boss.
- The Third Story: “How can I have hard conversations when there is not a base of trust with someone?”
- The Lie: It is false to believe that trust is a zero-sum game. Our cup is not full or empty when it comes to trust but instead, constantly evolving in layers. If you lack trust, a vulnerable and hard conversation will add a layer. It’ll build trust, so start now.
- Your Reality Check: Remember that vulnerability is the fastest way to build trust. That’s right, the fastest. Give a little, get a lot. Lead the way. Be vulnerable first, don’t wait around for them. How do you do that? By leaning into the uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure you feel.
- What You Can Do:
- Be honest with your internal experience: say, “The story I am making up is [the story you’ve made up]. Is that accurate?”
- Listen to their response. It will either be, “Oh my gosh, no, that is not true, here is what is…” OR, “You know what, that is true. Let’s talk about it.” Either way, you are better off knowing what is real.
- “The story I am making up is that when you didn’t assign me to tackle that project it is because you think I am incompetent?”
- “The story I am making up is that you think I am overwhelmed because you keep asking if I need help.”
- “The story I am making up is that because you gave Mary that promotion, I am going nowhere here in our company.”
- The Fourth Story: “They should know better.”
- The Lie: Just think about this one. Consider it for a moment. If they knew better, or understood the implications, don’t you think they would be doing something differently?
- Your Reality Check: Don’t be arrogant. Imagine that they actually have not been given the truth before, or have not understood and they don’t actually know better? Imagine that they are doing the best they can. Would that change how you feel? Be more generous — you can do that.
- What You Can Do:
- When you feel yourself reacting in indignation, take a few breaths.
- Imagine it from their perspective.
- Follow what to do on the outside from numbers 1, 2 and 3.
Are you starting to see the theme?
Beneath each of the common complaints we make about our relationships at work there is a larger narrative. A more generous, honest way of communicating. A world where these techniques and reframes are pervasive, would be an easier world to live in for all of us.
Start having those tough conversations. Be awkward and be kind. It’s okay if you do it imperfectly — you will feel lighter, more connected and more energized by walking through them, I promise.
Moe Carrick and her team wake up every day trying to help workplaces work for the human beings in them.