My relationship with Corporate America has been wonderful, not because it's been easy and fun the whole time, but because of what it has taught me. I started out at CHANEL and continued to move through various jobs until I landed at Goldman Sachs in the Investment Banking Division. I know. It's not a popular name to be throwing around these days, but I will say that it was extremely interesting to work on both Fashion Avenue and Wall Street. Yet however diverse and extraordinary a string of experiences it was, one thing remained true whether I was navigating the creativity that abounds in a fashion environment or the cognitive intensity that accompanies high finance. And that is to say that while industries do vary, people really don't - at least, not when it comes to organizational communication and behavior. Reactions to being mistreated are similar, fear is universal and ego is everywhere.

So, yes, it's true. I learned a lot about business and people fighting everyday corporate battles on the frontlines. But mostly I learned that the workplace is in dire need of a no-nonsense, cut-to-the chase approach to communicating that is appropriately formulated with more humanity and less BS. It was that general observation, coupled with a conversation that I'd had with a colleague about his inability to discuss a problem with his coworkers regarding the employee refrigerator, that prompted me to write my book, Surviving Dreaded Conversations.

In talking with this colleague, I realized that "difficult" was a relative term and defined by each person based on his or her own individual perception of negative. My colleague said that he would rather die than tell his coworkers that he thought they should remove their rotting sandwiches from the company fridge because the bread was sprouting mold. Meanwhile, I saw nothing wrong with, or negative about, this conversation at all.

So, my first question was, "What exactly made a conversation on this topic so frightening?" And then, my second question was, "Why do certain conversations have the power to cause so much dread, anxiety, and fear in certain people?"

Conflict? Despite popular opinion, I don't think so.
Confrontation? Same here. It assumes that conversations are deemed difficult because of an implicit fight, which is not always true, not by any means.
Rejection? Probably, to some extent.
Emotion? Most likely.
Some combination of all of the above? Definitely.

The point is that our definition of "difficult" when it comes to dreaded conversations is ill-defined. Not everyone fears conflict or confrontation, and not everyone handles rejection and emotion the same way. That aside, we do seem to collectively share the discomfort of these exchanges, not because we are all afraid of the same thing, but because on some level we all have our own personal reasons for dreading the conversations we dread.

Personally, I always find it amazing when people ask me for advice on having difficult conversations and start with the question, "But how do I say...." They then go on to tell me what they think and how they feel in a clear and cogent way as they attempt to help me understand the situation. The interesting part is that I am immediately left asking them in return, "Why can't you say exactly what you just said to me?" 9 times out of 10, I can't think of a better way to do it myself. And beyond that, their words are tempered with the right amount of thoughts, facts and feelings and there is zero emotion. It's all good. It's perfect, in fact.

This is why I say that having difficult conversations is not about influencing or resolving something with another person, but rather about influencing and resolving something within yourself. I argue that the problem comes from what we have learned, or more aptly put, what we have not learned due to a lack of acceptance and appreciation for direct and honest interpersonal exchange.

In a misguided attempt to be polite and gain social acceptance, society dictates that, "Silence is golden," "Children should be seen and not heard," and "The truth hurts." The notion that the truth hurts is lost on me, for I don't believe that it could ever possibly hurt more than a lie. But nonetheless, as a result, we are deprived of the opportunity to develop communication skills that enable us to express our thoughts, opinions and emotions in an effective way. It is archaic indeed, but it is also a reality from which we seem unable to break free.

Now, fast-forward to the workforce where people are thrown into situations where they have to say something to someone whom they probably don't know that well. No practice. No dress rehearsal. No previous experience. Well, of course, these circumstances make an unpleasant conversation both difficult and dreaded. Doing something new and unfamiliar is always awkward. Not only have the appropriate "muscles" never been developed, but they also atrophy over time with every conversation that is put off, ignored or sugarcoated. In other words, it gets worse (and harder) as careers advance if folks don't dive in at some point and start learning by doing.

So take a page from the Nike handbook and, "Just do it!" One way to make that a little easier is:

First, prepare. Isolate the main point or points you need to make. Write them down.

Second, organize. Set up your conversation in your head with the same three-part structure used in drama. Set up. Conflict. Resolution.

Third, practice. Rehearse your key points and consider any adjustments you may need to make in your own personal style and delivery.

In all, the better you get, the less dependent on these steps you will be, because like so many things in life, practice makes proficiency.

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About the Author

Donna Flagg

Donna Flagg is the author of Surviving Dreaded Conversations and a New York City-based dancer.

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