Difficult conversations – why they are necessary

In this blog, Aziza explores the link between our own self improvement, human connections and the ability to have ‘difficult conversations’.

‘The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.’ Warren Bennis


Challenging the status quo and having difficult conversations is not easy – at least at the start. The human desire to be liked is at threat, when we fear we might ‘upset the applecart.’ Let’s face it, these conversations aren’t easy for the giver or the receiver.

Allow me to first ask though, what do we mean by a ‘difficult’ conversation? Do we mean holding others to account? Are we talking about honesty and candour? If that’s the case then 1) let’s turn ‘difficult’ into ‘necessary’ and 2) I recommend reading Mary Myatt’s High Challenge, Low Threat.

Here are my main take-aways for helping to minimise the pain of having a ‘necessary’ conversation.

• Change culture to one where feedback and guidance is expected and embraced. This kind of culture allows for ‘necessary conversations’ to come with more ease, AND you will find that your colleagues will welcome the feedback as opportunities to learn and improve.

Here’s how…

  • Before you can challenge the professional, you need to have gotten to know the human beings that they are first. What do you know about them? What are their kid’s names? What do they enjoy for hobbies? Getting to know them and spending just a few minutes regularly checking in on them as people allows you to ‘bank credits.’ Think of it as trying to make a withdrawal from a bank account. What you can take out depends on how much you’ve put in.
  • Remember, no one wants to perform poorly. Naturally and innately, people want to do their best. So, remove the person from the task or practice you are challenging.
  • Choose a helpful time and place! Maslow’s hierarchy suggests that people can only fulfil advanced needs after they have fulfilled their basic needs. One of these basic needs… feeling safe.
  • A ‘safe’ place. No collegiate audience = no fear of embarrassment. It allows for more open and honest conversation.
  • A ‘safe’ time: Plan for an appropriate protected time. If either of you needs to rush off, one or the both of you will be thinking more about where you need to be next, rather than giving your conversation the attention and value it deserves.
  • Know your purpose! What is the purpose of your conversation? What do you want the outcome of your conversation to look like? Have clarity in what you would like to achieve and ask yourself if it aligns with your core work and values (eg. Is it what is best for our children?). This is the core and foundation of what you are asking from your colleague!
  • Practice what you will say and how you will say it before you even get to the conversation.
  • Be honest and frank. My greatest developments as a teacher and senior leader have come from people being honest with me. I’d rather someone get straight to the point, rather than skirt around it. Just tell me, with kindness, what I could do better, because I want to do better.
  • Seek to understand. This isn’t looking for or accepting excuses, but rather ensuring that you have clarity first. This way, when you challenge, you can be more definitive and supportive.
  • Include them in the process. Supporting and encouraging colleagues to find their own solutions will more likely lead to consistent improvement.
  • Be confident (or at least fake it), but not arrogant. You want to be taken seriously as a leader, right? But, be kind and in control. Kind in tone. Kind and open in body language.
  • Hold yourself to account for holding them to account. Check back in. Decide a deadline, date, time, whatever. If it’s of value, and if they are of value, you’ll follow up.
  • Don’t forget to bank more credits. This reinforces the fact that your conversation was regarding their professional work, not who they are as a person, and will make the next ‘necessary’ conversation that much easier.

It will get easier!

Aziza is a coach with Destino Coaching and works to support Deputy Headteachers, if you would like to book a session with her or find out more about coaching with her, please contact Nadia – nadia_destino@outlook.com

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