Controlling or Influencing? What’s Your Focus in a ‘Difficult’ Conversation?

Posted in : HR Updates ROI on 13 June 2017
Mary Rafferty
Consensus Mediation
Issues covered:

In his lecture on Relationships at Work at the recent Life 2.0 Conference in London, Dr George Pransky talks about ‘goodwill’ as one of the fundamental ingredients of good relationships at work.  By ‘goodwill’ he was referring to having feelings of friendliness, warmth, openness, tolerance.

Self-evident you might say and for the most part happens unconsciously. We have an instinctive drive for a level of harmony and collegiality with others. Not only that, but most of us also understand the ‘give to get’ rule – that it is in our own self-interest to be co-operative and helpful towards others.

When our ‘goodwill’ starts to evaporate

But what about situations where someone hasn’t been behaving in a way that meets our needs or expectations. Where someone is underperforming, missing deadlines or not being a team player?

The well of ‘goodwill’ towards them starts to run dry. Instead you feel a gnawing sense of frustration and irritation, perhaps disappointment or even hurt. Yet as their manager you have to address these infractions. You have to confront them about his. You have to get them to change their ways. But it’s not something you relish or look forward to.

This is precisely the dilemma that most managers find themselves in when faced with giving negative feedback about behaviour or performance to their staff. All feelings of tolerance and goodwill have evaporated. Yet the paradox is, when we approach such a conversation without a spirit of cordiality or kindness it’s much more likely to go wrong. The time you most need to have that feeling towards another person, it’s least accessible to you.

We cannot control other people

Some of the mythical thinking that we all fall prey to in such situations is that we should be able to control what others say and do. We know in our heads that we can’t. We know in our hearts that we don’t really want to. But when we are frustrated or irritated or when things aren’t going our way, our behaviours can come across as controlling or even forceful.

Patterson et al refer to this as our ‘style under stress’ (you can assess yours here) where we resort to either typical ‘fight’ responses such as controlling, labelling, or attacking behaviours OR ‘flight’ responses such as masking, avoiding, or withdrawing behaviours.

When you approach a difficult conversation from a mindset of ‘having to make them do’ or ‘trying to get them to…’ it’s pressure. You have all sorts of unhelpful thinking going on.

There is judgement about their behaviour ‘it’s not fair that they don’t take their fair share of the workload’ or ‘their behaviour is so disrespectful’.

There might be frustration that attempts you have made already to address the situation have fallen on deaf ears.

And there’s an anxiety at the thought of the shouting-match that might ensue when you try to get them to face the truth about themselves. 

None of this is helpful. Yet what do you do if this is how you feel?

How are you expected to muster up feelings of goodwill towards someone who really doesn’t deserve it?

Leadership is about influence and not control  

Such conversations appear ‘difficult’ because you are getting caught up in your own personal thinking about this person and their behaviour. Whether it’s a belief that you have to get them to change their ways or having frustrated or angry thoughts about them. ‘Why can’t they just come to work and do their job…grrh!’  

These feelings, which come from our own judgments, assumptions and negativity, are getting in the way of more resourceful frame of mind.  This frame of mind is about seeing your role as their manager from a more enlightened place. You are not there to control them or ‘make them change’. As Joseph Grenny states ‘The only thing you can control is yourself. Everything else is about influence… Because that’s how life works’.

So now the conversation become influencing someone to improve their performance or change their behaviour. And key to a conversation that influences or inspires someone to make changes is a sense of goodwill towards them. You can learn all the skills in the world, script it out and role play and practice in advance but without positive intentions, they are less likely to have real impact. Instead you’ll come across as insincere or even manipulative.

Intentions that foster goodwill include:

  • Wanting them to do well
  • Wanting to preserve the working relationship
  • Wanting to support them to do a good job
  • Seeing their strengths as well as their weaknesses
  • Seeing their behaviour as a manifestation of their own unhelpful thinking rather than anything to do with you personally
  • Trying to make the conversation as safe as possible for them
  • Staying away from blame or judgement
  • Wanting to make the changes required motivating and doable

Next time you are facing a ‘difficult’ conversation, don’t just prepare what you are going to say. Reflect also on the feeling you are bringing to what you are saying.

And don’t start until you can come from a place of positive intent and goodwill. 

This article is correct at 13/06/2017

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Mary Rafferty
Consensus Mediation

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