All entrepreneurs struggle with truly difﬁcult conversations—the conversations that deal with hiring, ﬁring, raises and discipline. Since we want to stave off these showdowns for as long as possible, we’re rarely prepared. I’m usually a skeptic of the “business book mentality”—offering advice that’s strong on paper, but questionable in practice—but in the past couple months, I’ve found a lot of valuable advice in Stone, Patton & Heen’s, ‘Difﬁcult Conversations’.
In many ways, a difﬁcult conversation with a coworker or employee is like public speaking: you prepare and think youʼll will your way through it. But once you sit down, all bets are off. It isn’t only managers that struggle with this. No matter which side of the table youʼre on, preparing for these discussions usually requires asking some crucial questions about identity: what you do, why itʼs important, and why you deserve to get what you want. Because itʼs stressful, we can make assumptions about what other people think and allow it to inﬂuence how we view ourselves:
“Working to keep negative information out during a difﬁcult conversation is like trying to swim without getting wet. If we’re going to engage in difﬁcult conversations, or in life for that matter, we’re going to come up against information about ourselves that we ﬁnd unpleasant…the bigger the gap between what we hope is true and what we fear is true, the easier it is for us to lose our balance.”
Itʼs easy to convince yourself that someone has preconceived notions about you and the conversationʼs outcome and itʼs even easier to let their feedback hang over you once itʼs over. This creates the winner/loser or combat mentality and a zero-sum-game approach can make you forget that youʼre sitting across the table from another feeling, rational human (well, maybe not always rational).
So, rather than thinking about the dark side of who we or our counterparts might be, we should learn to be aware of where we’re the most vulnerable and realize that those vulnerabilities are much more complicated than we think—what we need is never black and white.
“The biggest factor that contributes to a vulnerable identity is the ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking: I’m either competent or incompetent, good or evil.”
This means that asking for a raise isn’t going to label you as competent or incompetent, just as potentially handing one out doesn’t make you a spendthrift or a cheapskate. Tough conversations are unavoidable, but not every one has to shake us to our core.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Thereʼs a lot more great advice to be harvested.