Carlene Dowie

Carlene Dowie


Difficult conversations are a critical for industries and people to grow, the Gardiner Dairy Foundation Australian Dairy Leaders Luncheon earlier this year was told.

Leadership specialist Anneli Blundell challenged those at the luncheon to not shy away from conversations that were needed for the industry to create a brighter future.

“People can handle the truth we don’t want to give them,” she said.

But it was critical to ensure the message was delivered in the right way and by the right people.

Ms Blundell said teaching people how to have critical conversations was one of the biggest areas in leadership training.

People were hard-wired to avoid difficult conversations.

“Because right back to our tribal beginnings, so when we used to hunt and gather in tribes and survived off our standing in the tribe, it was very dangerous to rock the boat, it was very dangerous to have a different idea and perspective,” Ms Blundell said.

“Because if you were ousted from that group, your survival was in jeopardy.

“So at some level our brain thinks if I create tension between me and this person, I may be socially isolated, I may be kicked out of the tribe.”

But if people avoided difficult conversations, they were prioritising present comfort over potential conflict.

Avoiding these conversations also meant that people didn’t develop skills in how to conduct them.

This meant they developed intriguing ways of getting around a problem that needed to be addressed.

Some hoped that in time the problem would simply take care of itself or that somebody else would deal with it.

“Hope is not a strategy,” Ms Blundell said.

Some tried a hinting strategy – putting crumbs on the table so people would see the problem.

But being too direct was also not an effective strategy for having difficult conversations.

“Sometimes it is just too brutal for people,” she said.

Being effective relied on there being a level of trust and respect, otherwise there was the danger of bruising relationships.

Why we avoid difficult conversations

“RUOK Australia did a workplace survey on conflict,” Ms Blundell said.

“And they found that a percentage of people (46 per cent) would rather look for another job than handle a workplace conflict, be in a difficult conversation with someone.”

People also avoided these conversations out of concern for the impact on the other person or because they felt they lacked the capability to conduct them.

Others avoided them because the outcome was uncertain.

Sometimes people felt they did not have permission to have the conversation – that it was not their place to raise the matter.

“Does it affect you? Yes? Then you have permission to put it on table,” she said.

Avoiding these conversations was not really helping people or the industry to grow.

One research result showed that 72pc of people thought they would improve with critical feedback, but it did depend on having trust in the relationship between the participants.

“Most of us can take a hard message if it is delivered well,” Ms Blundell said.

“You see it is not about the message, it is about the messenger.

“Trust is what takes the sting out of the truth.”

The more trust, the more people were open to hearing the message.

Difficult conversations needed to occur at the boundary between support and challenge, because that was where growth occurred.

Too much support – “everyone gets a trophy” – did not build resilience, but too much challenge, people lacked perseverance, they gave up.

The path in the middle was where growth occurred – but this was different for everyone, so the key was to work out the zone for different people.

Ms Blundell warned that the harder the conversation and the challenges faced, the more important it was to get the process right.

It was vital all voices were heard.

To do this, leaders needed to slow down the process and create space.

“The harder the message, the slower you need to go; people need time to absorb and respond,” she said.

Learn to sit in the discomfort

Leaders also needed to learn to “sit in the discomfort” to give people time to process and come back into the conversation.

“So don’t be too quick to pull out of that conversation,” she said.

Leaders also needed to ensure that they were showing up in service and that what they were doing was for the good of the industry.

“Sometimes the most important conversations we need to have, the hardest conversations you’ll ever have, will be the ones you have with yourself,” she said.

“Have I done the right thing? Am I really showing up in this conversation? Do I care enough to create discomfort?”

Ms Blundell said it could be difficult to have a conversation with someone who did not want to participate.

If the person’s brain had been “hijacked” and it was a struggle to get them to consider an alternative point of view, there was nothing to do until they were in a state to have a conversation.

So a less direct tack might be needed.

Begin by having a conversation about the need to have a conversation or firstly talk about the problem of not being able to discuss the issue, before tackling it.

Ms Blundell warned that having difficult conversations in groups could be detrimental to the outcome.

Group meetings meant the loudest voices dominated, so it was vital to have a strong chair and clear rules about who and how long people could speak to ensure equal airtime for the quiet ones.

She also advised “chunking up” the concept – talking about the big picture so everyone could find areas where their interests overlapped, rather than getting caught up in the detail.

It was also important to recognise where there was ingrained bias against a particular person.

If tension was so high, and people could not separate the contributor from their role, leaders should go around the role and send in other people.

Ms Blundell also warned that sometimes there was no point in flogging a dead horse.

“Focus on the people who will get you there,” she said.

“If you spend all your time with the few dissenters, and they are loud and they have media people and big reputations, and you have a whole lot of your time invested here, you are going to ignore all these people here who can actually do something about the change.

“So spend the time where you are going to get the best return for that time.

“Not everyone is going to come with you.”