We sometimes paint conversations as ‘tough’, ‘uncomfortable’ and even ‘hard’. And yet, how we think about conversations affects how willing we are to engage in them.

We know that context is everything in human psychology, so it isn’t always what is said but rather the landscape in which a conversation sits. How then can we change the landscape and make a conversation more inviting?

For example, have you ever had to give ‘unwelcome’ feedback to a team member? A client (Let’s call him Colm*) recently shared an issue about a team member who was very sensitive to any feedback that went against his self-image as the perfect employee (Let’s call him Ethan*). Ethan was struggling to understand why he had not been promoted and, after years of working together, Colm was always on edge when engaging with Ethan and concerned that any conversation might get heated.

We therefore stepped back from the specific conversation and explored their relationship more broadly.

  • How might Colm be contributing?
  • How did he approach such conversations?
  • What ground rules might be set for them? Either by Colm or together with his team.
  • Was there any conflict between Ethan’s values and Colm’s values?
  • Did he also ask Ethan for feedback on his own performance?
  • What could be done to set a more helpful framing for the conversations?

In this specific instance, Colm hit upon the idea of framing such conversations as opportunities to coach Ethan towards his next promotion. He would then get Ethan to start living into the role of Director he wanted to get. As coaching is positive and hopefully helpful, Colm started to feel much more excited about the conversations because he truly wanted to help Ethan.

Adopting this approach, I would ask you to think about a specific conversation you are avoiding and ask yourself:

  • What aspects of this conversation feel uncomfortable?
  • If I could change one thing about the conversation, what would it be? This would ideally be something you can control or, at least, influence.
  • How might it play out then?
  • What else might I change?
  • What ground rules might I set?

What conversation might benefit from this today?

* Names have been changed to random names to ensure confidentiality!

Questions in the Image:

  • What conversations am I avoiding?
  • What aspects feel uncomfortable?
  • If I could change one thing, what would it be?
  • What ground rules might I set?

Want to Read More Around This Topic?

Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time by Susan Scott (link to Amazon.co.uk). This book focuses on the importance of having open, authentic, and effective conversations in both professional and personal settings. The author presents techniques and principles for engaging in meaningful conversations that can lead to improved relationships, increased understanding and better results.

Nurturing Curiosity – Daily Practice: This is part of the Nurturing Curiosity series of tools, insights and questions designed to help nurture curiosity as part of our daily practice. In point of fact, every interaction we have is an opportunity to question what we are observing and how we and others are seeing the world. Also remember that questions come in many forms throughout our day. As I was walking through my day and the places I would be, it struck me that I will get an opportunity to spend time in my wonderful local cathedral between meetings. I’m not religious and yet I love these spaces. It makes me think of our ancestors and their priorities – where they allocated their time and energy and indeed how they saw the future. So, what are we, as ancestors, leaving the next generations? And, more specifically, what am I contributing?

What Thoughts Would You Like to Share? My name is Tom O’Leary, and I envision a world in which curiosity shapes leadership. In this world, leaders aren’t boxed in by traditional thinking or established playbooks. They are open to fresh ideas and diverse perspectives, fostering a culture of exploration and learning. My mission is to shift leadership focus from authority, over-measurement and control to curiosity, learning and innovation, empowering leaders to prioritise the essential. My journey, lived in a number of countries and through various languages, has always been driven by a profound sense of curiosity. In fact, life has taught me that possibility lies not so much in seeking answers but in learning to ask better questions – the ones that help prioritise what is truly essential. I welcome your thoughts, feedback, or personal experiences related to these questions or any insights they may have sparked.