Why are you avoiding tough conversations?

'Suzanne' manages a team in a large government department. Most of her team are a delight to work with, but there is one man who, for many years, has been performing at a poor level, takes much unplanned leave, and is quite negative and resistant to change.

Suzanne is worried that if she speaks to him, he will become defensive as he has for other managers, accuse her of harassment, or find other ways of making her life difficult. Suzanne confessed to simply avoiding the situation, choosing the so-called easier option.  But at the same time, she was worried about the effect his behaviour was having on the rest of the team. 

Having a potentially difficult conversation can be hard for many people, whether you are a manager or a team member. While there are some very direct people who do not struggle at all in raising a tough issue, my experience has been that there are far more people who struggle in having a difficult conversation. Or at least in doing so well.

So, why are many people so reluctant to speak honestly with their manager or a colleague? And are you one of these people choosing avoidance? As with most problem behaviour, there is usually some unhelpful thinking behind it:


  1. A belief that it won't make a difference. Certainly it is true that some people will never change. These people may well have a long history of behaving in a certain way with many attempts to influence change being made by different people. But my experience has been that most of the time, this belief is wrong. The majority of people who we find challenging are simply different to us, not aware of how they are coming across, or are open to working things through - that is, if the conversation is approached in the right way.

    If you believe your conversation will not make a difference, this will surely stop you from working problems out with the great majority of good people out there.
  2. Expecting a defensive response.  The trouble with expecting the worst, is that we are likely to project a demeanour or approach the conversation in a way that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are many things we can do to reduce the likelihood of defensiveness - having a 'let's work it out' mindset, choosing a good time and place, defining the problem in a face-saving way, keeping the focus on the future, and being open to feedback ourselves.

    And, of course, we can have a backup plan if we do experience any defensiveness - demonstrating understanding, apologising for the situation, agreeing where we can, before exploring options for the future. If these don't help, then finding a better time and place could be an option.
  3. A belief that the other party shouldn't have to be told. Yes, we shouldn't have to tell people to speak with us if they have a concern, to work problems out with colleagues, etc. But people are wired differently and what is obvious and easy for us is not always obvious and easy for others. Nor are people mind-readers. We need to find face-saving ways of letting others know what we need - perhaps catching them doing the right thing and telling them what we appreciate, or checking your expectations of each other to make sure you are both working from the same page.
  4. A belief that it isn't our job to do so. Some people believe that it is the role of their manager only to sort problems out at work. Although managers do have responsibly for the overall functioning of their team, it is, of course, everyone's responsibility to sort problems out with colleagues as they arise. Managers love team members who take responsibility for solutions at work and sort problems out themselves.
  5. A belief that the problem will go away. Yes, sometimes problems do go away with time. We secretly wish that the problem person will leave or move into another role, hopefully outside of our workplace. However, on many occasions the problem does not go away and things escalate until you may feel the need to leave your workplace. This can be a valid option, but I believe many people choose this as their first option before even attempting to work matters through.

    Sometimes we think the problem will eventually go away because the person is going through difficulties in their work or personal life. While there is a time to show patience or 'cut people some slack', there are other times when action needs to be taken. Otherwise small issues can easily grow into major concerns. How do you know when to show patience and when you need to act? You will need to ask yourself how significant your concern is, and whether the problem that concerns you is ongoing.

    If you are going to err one side or the other, I would recommend that speaking up sooner is better than later. I have never regretted speaking with someone about a concern I have had. However I have regretted not taking action sooner.
  6. A concern about losing control ourselves. Many people do not want to act in ways to make the situation worse or to behave in ways inconsistent with their values. The good news is that if you give yourself some time to settle and to develop plans on how to raise the issue well and deal well with any button-pushing, you are highly unlikely to lose control. Remember that the great majority of things we fear, never occur.
  7. A lack of ideas on how to approach the conversation differently. Human beings are creatures of habit and we often find ourselves doing the same things over and over even if they are not working. The smart ones amongst us are always looking for ways to do things better. However, it is easy to think we have tried it all when really we have simply run out of ideas. Although I cannot guarantee that if you do something differently, there will be a different outcome. I can guarantee that if there is no change from you, you are highly likely to get more of the same. 

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