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One of my favorite TV shows is Kitchen Nightmares with chef Gordon Ramsay. I love it because Ramsay exposes the toxic organizational dynamics behind the failing restaurant that he comes to redeem. Inevitably, Ramsay has to have a tough conversation with the owner/chef/manager in which he tells them the truth about their poor leadership, mediocre menu, and bland food. Usually the staff is waiting in the wings, fearfully and hopefully, anxious for Ramsay to deliver the news that they have been unable to communicate to their boss.

Though Ramsay is blunt and hard hitting, he also delivers the message with hope and the promise to get the restaurant back on track. Like any good consultant, he knows how to have crucial conversations.

Thoughts from the Front Lines

As organizational consultants we frequently have similar hard conversations with our clients. We have learned that this approach is a rare and highly appreciated experience for most. We find few organizations where hard conversations occur on a regular basis.

Whatever the reason, this is an absolutely essential skill that is remarkably absent in today’s culture. Even people with considerable power — owners, CEOs, board chairs — are often reluctant to have the tough talks that are required for them to achieve the outcomes they desire.

As a result, people don’t get the feedback they need to improve their performance. They stay in positions for years doing work that doesn’t engage or challenge them. Those who care about excellence move on. Cumbersome systems and processes remain in place long past their usefulness. Mediocrity goes unchallenged and becomes the norm, masquerading as excellence in the company’s public facing materials.

Practicing the Truth

Like any skill, the ability to have hard conversations needs to be practiced. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. And, importantly, the more you do it, the more skilled you become.

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You all have undoubtedly experienced a tough conversation that is awkward, hurtful, emotional, and even damaging. Often these discussions occur because the people involved have waited too long to have it out of fear of hurting feelings or damaging the relationship. It is only when they’ve reached a point of being fed up and even angry that they finally say what needed to be said long ago. This negative filter results in a conversation that becomes needlessly adversarial or even disrespectful.

Crucial conversations don’t have to be this way. When you learn to do them well, you don’t have to put them off until you’ve reached a breaking point. Instead, you can use them to create positive outcomes, just like Chef Ramsay.

Here’s how

Prepare. Think carefully about the message you want to deliver. It might help to write down your main points.

Be specific. Avoid generalities and exaggerating. It is rarely useful to use the words “never” and “always.” (E.G. you are never on time or you always look like you are falling asleep in meetings.) Go over what you want to say with someone else who you trust to give you good feedback.

Start from empathy. Your motivation should start from the idea that you want the person to reach their full potential. Put yourself in their place. How can you best deliver the message in a way that they can hear it and see a positive result? What is important to them?

Time it well. Be sure to give yourself enough time to talk it through. Find a place that is private. Make sure the other person is in a state of mind to receive the message.

End on a hopeful note. Make sure the person understands the positive steps that can be taken to move forward.

I recently spoke with a business owner who had to fire a very likeable colleague who had been with the company for 15 years. Of course, she dreaded the upcoming conversation.

But to her relief, in the end, the person thanked her for doing what had to be done. He had realized that he was not in the right job and failing the company by his inability to step up to new responsibilities that were required. They were able to part respectfully.

You don’t need to call Gordon Ramsey to have a tough conversation. Develop your skill and practice it regularly. Before long, it will come naturally and gracefully.

It’s 3 a.m. Your stomach roils with unease and your mind plays an upcoming scene at work in a continuous loop with different perspectives, like a meticulous director searching for the perfect shot. The amount of times you have rolled over make you feel much like a chicken rotating on a spit.

What’s the cause of this sleepless night? Conflict. An issue arose at work and a contentious debate is inevitable.

Conflict at Work

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We’ve all felt this way at some point in our careers because conflict is a natural and inevitable component of any human relationship, whether at work or at home.

At work, conflict might emerge from creative differences, stress, personality differences, emotional intensity, communication misunderstandings, or confused expectations and much more.

Despite the potential for unpleasantness in conflict, it actually serves an important purpose in helping people grow and better solve problems, not to mention forging greater creativity. Charles Nemeth notes,

“There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings….Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”

In fact, Nemeth’s research on the subject illustrated his point when he discovered that teams told to debate were 20% more creative than teams directed to brainstorm.

So conflict is an important part of work. But it doesn’t mean one should never be conflict averse. Taken to an extreme, a person might try and address conflict for every small annoyance she encounters during the day. It would be counter-productive to be that insistent on addressing conflict.

But in most work settings where there’s a clear crossroads between parties, it is best to have a direct conversation, almost always. So when conflict arises, embrace the dialogue and approach it with a set of tools that helps bring solution rather than a series of discussions orbiting the problem.

Conflict and Stress

And yet, the stress surrounding conflict matters. If you approach conflict while under stress, you will likely encounter increases in negativity, irritability, shallow communication, and intense emotion, while also decreasing rationality. Not a recipe for success. So the ability to handle stress before conflict is critical. What do you need to do to be at level place before conflict begins?

Conflict and Personality

Another critical aspect of conflict resolutions resides in the understanding of behavioral differences. Truthfully, much of our personality dictates how we approach conflict and how we resolve it. Without this key understanding, two parties might be attempting to move forward but unable to get on the same page. There’s also a level of danger in this misunderstanding as parties might feel abused or depressed as a result.

Generally, people fall within 5 categories — directing, cooperating, compromising, avoiding, and harmonizing. These categories address two aspects that everyone encounters during conflict:

  1. How committed are you to your own agenda? How hard do you push for the desired outcome you prefer?
  2. How committed are you to the relationship? How much attention does it deserve, especially when conflict escalates.

These categories describe two aspects of conflict resolution, one being the response you have when conflict first emerges and the second details how you respond when circumstances become tense and issues are not easy to resolve.

Interestingly, people can swing from one category to another as conflicts shift from a first response to a tense situation. As an example, someone might begin with a direct response, seeking to squash any conflict and moving straight to an answer, only to move to a more harmonizing position when the conflict becomes untenable.

How would you diagnose what style you have? Tools such as the Kraybill Conflict Style Inventory bring clarity to the discussion.

Addressing Conflict

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So how should you approach conflict? For starters, bring the conflict to the open; don’t let it fester. Secondly, make sure every stakeholder is involved; they all need equal opportunity to participate. Finally, keep everything solution focused; don’t search for a scapegoat. Always keep in mind what the desired outcome should be. Successful solutions should meet the interests of all involved parties, can be implemented, are specific, sustainable, create nurtured and positive relationships, and have a follow-up process.

So the next time you are aware of impending conflict and your sleepless nighttime ritual returns, remember how important conflict is to the creative process as well as to deep relationships. Know your approach to conflict so you can best tailor it to the other stakeholders. With the final outcome always top of mind, your conflicts — while not necessarily pleasant — will become all the more fruitful.