Sandy Intraversato brings 25 years of consulting, sales and senior executive experience to her role as Partner at Iron Coaching, where she helps executives, business owners, and professionals of all levels to gain greater clarity, increase their capacity and lead lives of impact and influence. She will lead a workshop, "Navigating Difficult Conversations With Confidence" at NEXT, June 1-2 in New York.

Q. Do you have any advice for someone preparing for a difficult conversation?

A. By definition, a difficult conversation is any conversation that makes you uncomfortable. There are lots of things contributing to the discomfort, so what is difficult is going to vary by person.  

Regardless of the type conversation, when I work with clients I find they spend too much time thinking through what they want to say. When they ask, "can we role-play this conversation" my approach is, let's take a few steps back. Are you ready to be curious and understand what the other person needs to say? Are you prepared to hear a different perspective? Are you open to being influenced by it? I think that's where the preparation needs to start because how you answer those questions makes a big difference.  

Q. How might one's approach be different if they were having a conversation with a co-worker / subordinate / supervisor?

A. My personal experience and the body of literature support that if we go into a conversation using emotional intelligence and a desire to learn versus to be right, then you don't necessarily change your approach. That said, the relational dynamic, particularly as it relates to power, is different between a co-worker, subordinate, and supervisor, and so that is a factor. I find that power factors a bit too large in our thinking about whether or not to have a conversation. As leaders, we need to recognize that our employees might not feel safe to provide us feedback. Make it easier by being vulnerable and ask, "What's one thing you see me doing that's getting in the way of your success?" And I shouldn't have to tell research folks that if you are going to ask the question, you need to do something with the answer!

Q. You mention that we have "ingrained assumptions" that hold us back from having these conversations. Can you provide an example of such an assumption and how would you recommend addressing it?

A. The big thing is that we assume we know someone else's intentions based on the impact of their behavior on us. Our thinking is so automatic that we don't even realize our conclusion is an assumption. We feel hurt, therefore the other person intended to hurt us. The problem is that, however real or right our conclusions about another person's intentions toward us may seem, they are incomplete (at best) or simply wrong. Our intentions are invisible. When we start with this thinking error, the narrative follows. We avoid the conversation, or if we do attempt one, we start from a tenuous position. The way to address it is to recognize there is a difference between the impact of someone's behavior on you and what the other person intended.  

Q. What is the #1 reason people avoid difficult conversations?

A. When you talk to people about why they don't have a difficult conversation, it's because they fear the consequence - what will happen if they raise the issue? Professionally, I see a lot of leaders avoid difficult conversations because they hope that the person will figure things out through indirect messages - what the literature refers to as subtext. I tend to be a very direct person because I've learned both through my corporate training and personal experience, that people hunger for clarity. A lot of people have appreciated my candor, but not everyone. You shouldn't expect that every conversation will go well. I make the point because I think people avoid conversations when they lack the know-how... which translates into confidence.   

Q. Can you share a specific success story in which someone benefitted from having a difficult conversation with a client?

A. I've been in a business development role for the majority of my career, and so I feel like I'm an expert in having difficult client conversations! 

As a coach, I don't deal as much with client situations. Still, I did have a Principal of an engineering firm with whom I work regularly retain me specifically to help him work through a client situation. They had a 75 person team working on site on a large, multimillion-dollar building project. One of the project managers on the building owner's side was making claims to his bosses that he would later backpedal on when the senior staff for my client would attempt to address them. This situation created a sense of mistrust and frustration for the team, who stakes their reputation on client care. The Principal I worked with was in charge of the project, and he committed to get things turned around. He and I used the approach, designed by the team at the Harvard Negotiation Project, that helps you decode how conversations get stuck and how to have a conversation with a different goal and mindset. 

What also helped is that the Principal, as part of my work with the firm's leadership team, had completed an assessment that identifies one's underlying motives in conflict and how that plays out in your interactions. He and I were able to think through how he might get triggered and devise strategies to stay calm and curious. Difficult conversations require a lot of inner work. We often lose our balance internally and the aim is to regain it in pursuit of the relationship and the issue. That takes practice. My client said that prior to our work, he would go in and try and logic the other person to agree to his point of view. That may yield a short term win, but in the long run, no amount of persuasion is going to turn a situation around if the other person doesn't feel heard. This time my client focused on the relationship. The first of what ended up being several productive conversations occurred, and at last report, both sides of the project team are working collaboratively and cohesively. 

Learn more with Sandy during her "Navigating Difficult Conversations With Confidence" workshop at NEXT, June 1-2 in New York.