“Sometimes, when you don’t talk about something, it seems like it’s something that doesn’t matter. If you don’t name it, it isn’t real. The problem that it is real, and it has pervasive effects whether or not you believe it.” -Alicia Johnston
Every college campus has special traditions. From throwing toilet paper on the court at a basketball game, to touching a statue before a football game and even throwing all your papers out the dorm windows after finals, these experiences create a sense of unity for students.
On my campus, we had one of those experiences, but it had nothing to do with sports or rebellion. We called it the “Canyon Walk.” (We referred to our school – Grand Canyon University – as “Canyon.”) When you needed to define a relationship with someone of the opposite sex, you would go on a walk around the campus loop. I remember driving by couples on the “Canyon Walk”, trying to guess which way it was going by noticing facial expressions and body language.
Thinking about that walk, I feel a flood of emotions. I was on both sides of this conversation. I broke up with a girlfriend on that walk. I had a girl I was infatuated with let me down gently. I let down a girl who was into me…well, not so gently.
Those conversations were life-changing, for me and others. I know married couples today who took a walk themselves one night, and others that everyone believed were headed for the altar before they took a walk which ended it all.
Tough conversations, like those walks, change everything. Much of our lives can be traced back to a tough conversation. Some conversations we avoided and some we had which went poorly. Then there’s the ones which went better than we could have imagined. I wonder if our preferred future sits on the other side of a tough conversation.
As leaders, we’re always coming off a tough conversation, in the middle of a tough one, or contemplating one in the near future. In some ways, the reasons we’ve become a leader is to instigate these conversations. The real work of leading people is wading into tough conversation after tough conversation.
I went on vacation earlier this year after a prolonged period of work without time off. The time away led to new perspective. One area I saw differently was my relationship with members of my team. I identified at least one conversation I had been avoiding with every person I supervise. I was afraid of these conversations. Coming back from my vacation, I asked my assistant to hold me accountable. She got to work on planning one-on-one’s with each person I supervise within the next month.
Can I be honest with you? They didn’t all go perfectly. I had to apologize to one person and a couple times, things got emotional. But after each one, I felt so grateful for instigating the conversation.
Looking back, reflecting on why these conversations were so important and clarifying, I recognized 7 benefits to having tough conversations.
7 Benefits of Tough Conversations
1. Tough conversations communicate value.
When we care about someone enough to have a tough conversation, we communicate how much they mean to us. If we didn’t value them, we would just send an email or text. Even worse, we might gossip about them to someone else. We might not enjoy the conversation, but we value being addressed personally.
2. Tough conversations reveal blind spots.
None of us are perfectly self-aware. Most leaders deceive themselves on some level. When we sit down for a tough conversation, we regularly discover a blind spot. Other people give us a gift when we gain awareness and insight on what its like to be led by us. We cannot address what we do not see.
3. Tough conversations stretch our leadership.
I don’t know about you, but I regularly get nervous about conversations I have. But as you and I move into conversations we fear, we stretch ourselves. We get better at being comfortable amidst discomfort. Like developing our physical fitness, growth only comes when we stretch. Comfort is the opposite of stretching and the enemy of growth.
4. Tough conversations can increase trust and respect.
These dialogues don’t always produce agreement or common perspectives. But I’ve found people tend to trust and respect their leaders when they’re willing to have tough conversations, even if the outcome includes disagreement. When we’re willing to wade into the weeds with those we lead, we show them we respect them enough to be honest. In the future, they trust us to come to them instead of avoiding issues.
5. Tough conversations clarify the future.
People want to know where they stand. If we’re not performing, most of us want to know. The future is uncertain enough without adding to the ambiguity. We need to know where our people stand and they need to know the same from us. To the best of our ability, where we can add clarity, we should. Clarity is one of the best gifts we can give those we lead.
6. Tough conversations create opportunity for growth.
We grow as leaders when we initiate tough conversations. Those we lead gain opportunities for growth when we clarify an area where performances and attitudes need to shift. We all gain confidence when we are affirmed and encouraged.
7. Tough conversations focus your development and coaching.
I left the conversations with my team with a clear idea of the ongoing conversations, development and coaching that is needed over the next 90 to 120 days. When I interact with my team one-on-one and in groups, I know have a framework to listen to and engage with them. We’re all overwhelmed today, especially in our work. Gaining a sense of focus increases our chance of succeeding.
What conversation have you been avoiding? What if what you want is on the other side of that conversation?