"My company allow me to work part-time in theory; in reality, I still have to deliver a full time workload”;
“I’ve changed my hours to allow me to do the crèche run, but I keep missing out on meetings and I’m always checking my emails fearing I’ve missed something”;
“I need more help getting up to speed with my new role but I don’t know how to ask without looking like I’m out of my depth, and my manager isn’t very supportive”.
These are topics that I regularly discuss with my clients in maternity coaching sessions, so I thought it might be useful to talk about managing what may feel like a difficult conversation.
There is no definition as to what makes a conversation ‘difficult’. You might tackle a conversation with ease while your colleague might suffer sleepless nights thinking about it. You might dread bringing up a topic with someone while your partner can’t even understand what the problem is. From my work as a coach and from personal experience, I know that at the core of a ‘difficult’ conversation is something that is going on inside of you. Some fear, some feeling of inadequacy, some self-limiting belief. Whatever it is, the thoughts of having that conversation can make you feel genuinely anxious. It can feel so uncomfortable that you may be tempted to put it off or even avoid it completely. The first step in dealing with it is to work out is why this conversation feels like it’s going to be hard for you. What are you afraid will happen?
I have worked with clients who have tied themselves up in knots preparing for meetings with someone they found difficult. Sometimes, this preparation worked and they managed to say the ‘right’ thing, and then they’d tell themselves they got through it ok and things weren’t so bad. Other times, they were chewed out of it and left the meeting feeling worthless. I know I have been in that situation, and the feelings can stay with you for days if you don’t address the heart of the problem. As soon as someone questions your value, then you need to think about how long you are going to allow that to continue. It may be something they explicitly say, or it may be something they imply by their tone or body language; whatever it is, you’ll know that it’s a miserable feeling. If you know you are giving 100% and doing your best, then you should never have to convince someone that you are worth something. Feeling you have to prove something and constantly justify yourself isn’t healthy and, more than that, it isn’t sustainable without significant negative consequences.
To put that into a workplace context, you may want to ask for flexible hours at work so you can manage childcare, but you worry you won’t be taken seriously anymore and your chances of career progression will reduce. If we take the emotion and worry out of that situation and just consider it objectively, what we are left with is a request to change hours, and one of usually three outcomes: yes, no, compromise. Once you have your answer, then you decide if it works for you. End of story, and nothing too difficult there, in theory. But to feel that comfortable requires a deep-seated faith in your own worth.
What happens in reality is usually a justifying of how you will make it work: the offer to log on in the evenings, take calls out of hours, and catch up on work over the weekend. We do that because of what’s happening inside of us. All our fears of not being good enough, available enough, career-driven enough, come to the surface. We over-compensate - now, to reach a level of self-esteem and certainty where you know both your value and your boundaries takes a lot of work. But once you reach that stage, you will rarely have a difficult conversation. Because you won’t attach how you feel about the conversation based on the other person’s reaction. You will look at it objectively and decide if it works for you. It doesn’t mean people won’t be argumentative or hostile or disagreeable towards you, but that will be on them, not on you. Water off a duck's back, so to speak.
So what can you do to manage a difficult conversation?
Action is needed to change your circumstances. But your action needs to be controlled and well thought through. There are consequences to maintaining the status quo which may be tempting if you don’t want to rock the boat but, equally, there will be consequences to initiating that conversation - hopefully positive ones, but that can’t be guaranteed, and you have to go in with your eyes open.
Depending on your circumstances, you might consider one or more of the following:
1. Review your situation as objectively as possible
When we feel under pressure, it’s natural to dwell on the negative or read into things too deeply. Instead, list exactly what is happening. Mark the items that are within your control. For example, clearly articulating what your ideal situation would be. Don’t focus your energy on items outside of your control such as “what if my boss reacts badly?”
2. What do you want to achieve from the conversation?
Know what you want to walk away with before you begin. This could range from simply expressing your needs - “I would like to change my hours to manage childcare”, or “I would like additional support in learning my new role such as work shadowing”. That way, even if you don’t get the response you want, you can at least feel it was a successful conversation because you did what you set out to do and you took control.
3. Anticipate your manager's concerns
This is different to endlessly second-guessing yourself; rather, it’s standing back from your situation and considering what reasonable concerns could be raised regarding your request…and think of some solutions.
4. Know your boundaries before you initiate the conversation
If you don’t get the answer you want, think about your potential responses. This will help you feel a little less backed into a corner. For example, “If my request for reduced hours isn’t approved, I will a) accept that I tried, and find a different childcare solution; b) explore new jobs in my current company that could offer more flexibility; c) research companies that have more family-friendly working policies”. Of course it may not be appropriate to communicate your responses during that first meeting, but if you think through your boundaries beforehand, you will be able to remain composed and know what your next step might be.
5. When you are facing a difficult conversation, it’s natural to stay in your own head
You may analyse everything you are going to say and do, thinking all of the responsibility is on you to manage things. Rarely do we recognise the fact that, if someone is being difficult/confrontational/aggressive, then usually something is going on for them. They are dealing with their own fears, pressures, and anxieties. This doesn’t excuse poor and unsupportive behaviour, but it does go some way to understanding it. Consider asking open questions: “What are your concerns?” as opposed to “What can I do to allay your concerns?” The difference is you get them talking, and it’s not all on you.
Conversations like this can seem very challenging, and while there is no magic wand, there are ways of getting through them in a way that leaves you feeling good about yourself. You may not get the outcome you want, but if you are confident of your worth and don’t allow others to dictate how you feel about yourself, you’ll find difficult conversations become a thing of the past.
So, for this month’s homework:
Q: What conversation are you putting off, and why do you think that is?