I recently heard someone – a businessman known for his abilities to get great things done – reveal something he learned early on in his career that he said accounted for a large measure of his success. He said that he realized that how far you get in life will depend a great deal on how willing you are to have difficult conversations.
This struck me as a profound truth. Let’s face it, almost nobody enjoys the idea of starting a discussion that they know is going to spark rebuttals or raise emotions. Life is just easier if we can avoid confrontations.
But what I try to remember when I am faced with having a difficult conversation is that it is not about confronting a person as much as it is about confronting the truth. And truths should always be spoken.
Over the years I have had to fire people who were not able to bring their behaviors in line with company expectations. I have had to sever business relationships when it became apparent that we were not going to agree on a mutually beneficial approach. But I am happy to say that those occasions have been rare. More often, I have had a frank discussion with a client who needed to hear some hard truths, or taken an employee on a “Manji Walk” where I firmly reminded them of the need to be fully on board and engaged, or I have sat down with a business associate and clearly outlined the areas where I felt we needed to get better aligned.
In many of these cases, I had to take a deep breath and get myself emotionally centered to have the talk. To be honest, not every one of those discussions turned out as I had hoped, but usually we emerged with a better understanding and a path forward. One thing is for sure: As much as I may have liked to avoid these conversations beforehand, afterward I was always glad to have achieved the clarity.
As a dentist, you face these kinds of things every day. The patient who needs to hear some hard truths about the condition of their oral health. A staff member whose behaviors are starting to affect the morale of the team. A colleague on your interdisciplinary team whose communication on shared cases is less than ideal. In each instance, the easy thing to do is just let it go for now and hope it gets better. But we all know in our hearts that not taking action is seldom a winning strategy.
There is a fantastic book I have been recommending for years on this topic called “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.“ I think it is a must-read for anyone who has been avoiding these discussions – or who wants good practical advice on how to conduct a difficult talk productively. After all, good communication is always going to be the central component of good leadership, so it makes sense to develop these skills and to be prepared to communicate with confidence when the going gets tough.
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