Why We Avoid Tough Talks—and How to Get Over It

rebeccaheadshot1eA senior-level executive who I coached shared this story of the most difficult conversation she had ever had with an employee. This executive—let’s call her Mary—led an account team of junior managers, and the client asked for the removal of one of the managers—named “Mike”—from the account. When Mary tried to explain the situation to Mike from the client’s point of view to justify the request to step down, Mike expressed strong disagreement with the client’s rationale. After attempting to smooth things over, Mary was dismayed to find that Mike grew irate, demanding a meeting with HR to discuss how Mary’s leadership style was linked to the current situation with their client.

While not all tough talks go this poorly, the anticipation that they might leads many managers to dread broaching sensitive topics. A 2016 survey by Globis of over 500 leaders pinpointed the top reasons why they try to avoid difficult discussions at work. These include concern about how the conversation will affect the other person, which certainly also affects the manager, by:

  • Causing upset (92%)
  • Associated stress levels (92%)
  • Receiving an angry response (80%)

Yet while it may be tempting to try to spare the recipient of your news—as well as yourself—from stressful, uncomfortable feelings, real problems can result from dodging difficult topics. Being able to have honest conversations, including about sticky subjects, lies at the heart of productive work and relationships. The managers who learn how to lean into these pain points are the ones who can best build trust, garner supportive reactions, gain greater respect, and create better outcomes. Those who try to avoid the discomfort put these same things in jeopardy.

SHAMBAUGH executive coaching practice reveals that when managers fail to tackle issues directly and instead avoid them, it can negatively affect both employee morale and team relationships, leading to decreased productivity for individuals and entire organizations. If unspoken conflicts linger for too long beneath the surface, it can also lead to health problems for workers, and ultimately absenteeism, which again affects both engagement and the bottom line.

With these realities in mind, it’s clear to see that leaders who feel apprehensive about initiating conversations on sensitive matters need to find ways to “get over it,” so to speak. There’s much to be gained by tackling tough talks with employees and other team members, and a great deal to be lost at both the personal and business level by shying away from these crucial discussions.

But even with the awareness of these compelling study findings, it’s not that easy to execute on following through with hard discussions. Despite our good intentions, protecting ourselves emotionally is hardwired in the human brain. The types of emotional reactions caused by difficult talks can literally hijack our amygdala, triggering feelings of fear, mistrust, anger, and stress. The reason this happens is because the two amygdala on each side of the brain shut down the neural pathway to the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for processing complex thoughts, as well as for problem solving and causing emotions. With this pathway closed, we may find ourselves feeling disoriented during difficult conversations, since we lose access to the ability to tap into multiple perspectives and make complex decisions. This can lead to black and white thinking where we’re always “right” and the other person is simply viewed as “wrong.”

Research has also found that the amygdala plays an important role in retrieving memories for emotion-filled experiences. So when you consider whether or not you want to initiate a difficult conversation, it can bring you back to replaying similar hurts, previous threats, or deep emotions that can keep you from wanting to pull the trigger on the talk.

What’s central to overcoming this resistance to difficult dialogue is to learn how to read these signals so that you can override them before they talk you out of talking. Here are three strategies to help you feel the fear and do it anyway when you try to duck out of starting a sticky conversation:

  • Check for the fight, flight, freeze When you consciously decide to dodge a tough talk, you might be operating under “fight/flight/freeze.” The freeze part of this otherwise familiar paradigm is what happens when you feel that you won’t succeed by either fighting or fleeing from the situation—you simply become paralyzed with fear and decide to do nothing. It may initially feel safer to engage in complete conflict avoidance yet try and learn to recognize and identify the types of tricky talks that lead you to freeze up, then you can remind yourself that this is not, in fact, a matter of life or death. You don’t need to dissociate from difficult discussions as though they were a major trauma worthy of such a response. Instead, tell yourself that being willing to tackle such topics can actually help the individual you’re speaking with and your team or department as a whole, which is part of your job as a leader.
  • Know your hot buttons. Some executives who I coach aren’t afraid of tough talks in general, but do have certain topics they dread addressing with their teams—perhaps delivering negative feedback or negotiating salary, for example. Everyone has different “hot button” issues that can lead them to freeze up or simply avoid those discussions. Take time to recall specific past situations and conversations that didn’t go well, so that you’re aware of what types of interactions previously hijacked your amygdala. Name the situation and what caused that hot button to go off—for example, times that someone didn’t listen to you, intimated you, or disagreed with you on something you felt was right. Then be on the lookout for history to repeat itself. When you find yourself on the verge of being hijacked by one of your hot-button issues, PAUSE first and ask yourself what you can do to avoid being hijacked. Some potential tactics to try are below.
  • Choose another reaction. In the heat of the moment, it may feel like you have no choice but to respond in the same way you’ve always responded. But instead of dropping the conversation when things get heated, you might:
    • Practice mindfulness to restore your equilibrium. Subtle breathing techniques can help center you before or during a tough talk. You don’t need to practice mindfulness in private; simply become more aware of your breath when you’re about to begin a stressful conversation. Research has shown that attention-to-breath can calm negative emotions by increasing the connectivity between your amygdala and prefrontal cortex.
    • Challenge your personal assumptions and forgone conclusions. When your amygdala is in charge, you may feel threatened as you associate what you think will happen this time with what happened last time. Instead of following the old story line in your mind that leads directly to negative thoughts that shut down your willingness to communicate, actively bring yourself back to the present. Remind yourself that this is a new conversation, and that you don’t have all the answers yet. In order to get the full scoop, it’s important to have a dialogue first rather than assuming anything.
    • Ask open-ended questions to learn what’s really going on. If you fear intimidation, then if someone raises their voice, you may feel like dialing down the drama—and in the process avoid the whole conversation even if it’s necessary. Instead, when you recognize one of your hot buttons being pressed, make an active decision to override your usual response by using open-ended questions to get more clarifying information. Becoming a better listener can help you challenge your personal assumptions so that you can understand the other person’s perspective better, opening you up to facing your fears about spearheading sticky subjects.

In short, while few managers are excited about broaching sensitive topics, avoiding the hard stuff is not the answer. The key to tackling tough-talk avoidance is to recognize the types of stressful or emotional situations that allow your amygdala to be hijacked in the first place. Next, you need to reframe those detractors so that you can restore the thinking power to your problem-solving frontal cortex. By recognizing and changing the tendency to fight, flee, or freeze and being willing to step up to the plate and have those difficult conversations, you can overcome the fear of what scared you in the past and lead your teams to a less stressful and more productive future.

Rebecca is an internationally acclaimed and sought-after keynote speaker, leadership expert and contributing editor for Harvard Business Review and the Huffington Post.

Ask Rebecca to speak at your organization by contacting her at info@shambaughleadership.com. Learn more about SHAMBAUGH’s leadership solutions and how they can build and sustain gender equity across your organization. Accelerate your female talent through SHAMBAUGH’s customized In-House Leadership Programs for women and our signature Women in Leadership and Learning (WILL) Program. For more information visit: www.shambaughleadership.com

Rebecca is author of the best-selling books It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky FloorLeadership Secrets of Hillary Clinton, and Make Room for Her: Why Companies Need an Integrated Leadership Model to Achieve Extraordinary Results.

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