We all face difficult conversations in our work; whether as a PhD student trying to tell a supervisor that they are not very helpful, or as post-doctoral researcher, explaining to your line manager that you really don’t want to take up any more teaching responsibilities. Or even as a practitioner having to point out to an esteemed researcher that their pet project is not relevant at all for your practice.
Like most people, I try to avoid these conversations as much as I can and prefer ‘flight’ rather than ‘fight’. Best to give in and avoid confrontation than have an uncomfortable row that will keep me up at night.
But could confrontations also be useful, and if so, how could you manage them in a way that they benefit you? This was the aim of the Courageous and Compelling Conversations Masterclass I attended in London as part of the NIHR Leadership Development Programme. Before starting the masterclass, I had to complete a self-assessment of my preferred response mode to confrontational conversations, which neatly confirmed my ‘flight’ status and gave me new labels for it: 60% Give In; 20% Run Away; and 20% Compromise.
What the masterclass taught me was that confrontation is not about preparing well for the other’s potential responses; for instance, by endlessly scripting clever and rational dialogues to counteract every accusation that a person could throw at me.
Instead, the course focused on better understanding my own response style in relation to other people. My light bulb moment was the realisation that you can’t control the response of the person you are talking to, but that you can manage yourself on how to respond, and take time to formulate this response during the conversation. Therefore, my nights (more preferably work hours) would be better spent understanding what I want to get out of the confrontation (outcome) and plan my conversations accordingly, instead of worrying what the other person will say and need.
Although, these three styles feel quite stereotypical, I was surprised to see how much each of us on the course was conforming to these styles when explaining their behaviour in difficult conversations. We discovered that we incorporate elements of each style into our conversations but have a natural gravitas to a particular style. Realising your preferred style and working out the preferred style of your conversation partner, proved really helpful.
For example, someone who prefers to be a submarine (technician style), does not respond well to pressure to make an on the spot decision. Forcing them to agree to a solution at the end of the conversation will only escalate the confrontation. Instead, agreeing to give them time to mull the problem over and come back with a response later, will likely result in a much more favourable response and implementable solution.
Under stress, people tend to respond in either of two ways: they become more extreme in their preferred style (dig their heels in) or switch to a different style. What we were encouraged to do during the training course, was to play with different styles and practice switching during a confrontational conversation to a different style that would be more attuned to the person we were speaking to. In that sense, we are better able to manage ourselves and the responses we get from the person we are confronting.
A key part of this switching of styles was being assertive; not shouting over the other or ignoring what they say, but quite the opposite: taking more time to listen to the other and trying to understand what they say and where they are coming from. Are we really hearing what the other person is telling us or are we too busy trying to contain our emotions and constructing our next argument in our heads? Armed with this understanding, you will be better prepared to say what you think and feel, and, most importantly, what you want to happen.
As an ambulance, I need to be patient with submarines and focus on the practical, while being more competitive and assertive with snow ploughs, or team up with submarines to create new opportunities in joint conversation with snow ploughs.
- 'Arguments' by Jeff Eaton via Flickr. Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0): https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffeaton/7436909698