IBIS shares news, insight and best practices about pressing Diversity & Inclusion and Unconscious Bias topics in today’s workplace.

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Holding Difficult Conversations …Do I Have To?

The fact is, we all struggle when it comes to addressing difficult topics in the workplace—topics that could be perceived as political, or that elicit strong emotion.

Showing up to work after a weekend of challenging headlines or exhausting national events is not easy for anyone. Most of us tend to shy away from sharing our thoughts with our colleagues, and we aren’t even sure how to listen to what they have to say.

And yet, our thoughts and experiences still exist, and shape how we live, communicate, and work. Discussing them is important because it allows us to develop awareness of one another’s perceptions, and is a crucial step toward creating comfort and safety in the work environment. The work of learning and including different identities and experiences is part of every journey toward DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion).

OK…How Do I Do it?

Having a difficult conversation requires some preparation. Relying on familiar approaches to dialogue often fails to serve the range of very different perspectives that exist in a diverse organization.

At IBIS, we’ve learned that it’s important to find innovative ways to navigate complex topics with awareness.

6 Tips and Suggestions for Holding Difficult Conversations

  1. A successful outcome will depend on two things: how you are and what you say. How you are (centered, supportive, curious, problem-solving) will greatly influence what you say.
  2. Acknowledge emotional energy – yours and theirs – and direct it towards a useful purpose.
  3. Know and return to your purpose at difficult moments.
  4. Don’t take verbal attacks personally. Help your colleague come back to center.
  5. Don’t assume they can see things from your point of view.
  6. Mentally practice the conversation. See various possibilities and visualize yourself handling them with ease. Envision the outcome that you want.

Have a Growth Mindset

What can you do to build a growth mindset?

  • Believe that your efforts matter. Rather than thinking their abilities are fixed or stuck, people who have a growth mindset believe that effort and hard work—in this case, as part of a difficult conversation—can lead to meaningful growth.
  • Learn new skills. When faced with a challenge, they look for ways to develop the knowledge and skills that they need to overcome and triumph.
  • View failures as learning experiences. People with growth mindsets don’t believe that failure is a reflection of their abilities. Instead, they view failure as a valuable source of experience from which they can learn and improve. “That didn’t work,” they might think, “so this time I’ll try something a little different.”

Become an Active Listener

  1. Be attentive
  2. Ask open-ended questions
  3. Ask probing questions
  4. Request clarification
  5. Paraphrase
  6. Be attuned to and reflect feelings
  7. Summarize

Use a Roadmap for Reflection

At IBIS, we’ve developed a framework that empowers leaders to approach these conversations with confidence and use them as opportunities to build connection and understanding.

The FLEX model provides a roadmap to individual reflection…and action. It focuses on four areas:

  • Focus Within
  • Learn From Others
  • Engage in Dialogue
  • eXpand the Options

1. Focus Within:

Develop an attitude that is centered, supportive, curious, problem-solving in order to influence the direction of the conversation toward a positive outcome. Use the opportunity to model self-awareness.

2. Learn from Others:

In order to learn from others, cultivate the ability to integrate your own and others’ experiences by recognizing the features your experiences have in common with others.

3. Engage in Dialogue:

Use inquiry to gain insight into the perspective of others by asking the kinds of questions that will help you better understand their perspective.

Ask questions that encourage dialogue and discussion. Great questions help participants get to a reflective space to really consider topics and issues. Here are some impactful questions that focus on the self and can facilitate thoughtful dialogue:

  • “In your opinion how might you …?”
  • “What might be ways that you could improve …?”
  • “How would you define (insert topic) from your perspective?”

Employ reflective listening skills by incorporating what you hear into your questions:

  • “What I’m hearing you say is…”
  • “So you’re saying that…”

Recognize and manage personal assumptions, motivations, and judgments that you might bring into the dialogue.

4. EXPAND the Options:

As you move forward, strategize a range of opportunities to advance DEI understanding and awareness from the conversation and commit to applying what you have learned to future conversations.

Even with a full toolkit, it’s not easy to hold difficult conversations at work. But with practice, a growth mindset, and the right set of strategies, these dialogues can have a positive and reverberating impact on the people and the culture they all help to create.

For more insight into dialogue, read our article “Debate vs. Dialogue.”

The skilled consultants at IBIS are here to help coach, guide and facilitate difficult conversations in your workplace. Contact us today.

Enin Rudel is a senior consultant with IBIS, is a Senior Consultant on the Talent and Client Services Team. He is an expert facilitator in intragroup dialogue. Dr. Rudel training includes mitigating bias, racial equity, executive coaching, and aligning organizational structure for DEI. His recent publication on, “Emotional Intelligence, Organizational Social Architecture, and Black Male Leadership” offers the first resource for global DEI leaders on how to elevate retention and leadership of Black male executives.

Senior Consultant Cedar Pruitt specializes in leadership, communication and culture. She helps organizations develop practices and policies that allow everyone to thrive. Her clients include competitive universities, mid-size financial firms, innovative start-ups, and more.