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How to best manage awkward conversations in business

How to best manage awkward conversations in business

26 November 2020|Crisis Management, Latest Posts, Legals & Compliance, Psychology

How to best manage awkward conversations in business
How to best manage awkward conversations in business

By Sheryl Miller.  Awkward conversations in business – do you balk at the prospect or are you unfazed by the possibility of eliciting anger or causing offence? Whether you have the propensity to fight or take flight, awkward conversations in business are part and parcel of management and leadership. 

In fact, these are necessary on occasion in order to prevent issues from simmering and escalating into something far more pernicious. 

The process of course isn’t easy. But the consequences of inaction can be far worse than if the issue were addressed in the first place via the medium of an ‘awkward’ conversation. This is, of course, applicable not only to business but to personal affairs in general. 

It’s the ultimate exercise and test in the very ‘soft skills’ often derided or overlooked in business because quantifying the benefits can be tricky. Yet tact and diplomacy coupled with a measured frankness will be key to the successful navigation of awkward conversations and determining a positive outcome for all. 

Some have labelled this act ‘radical candor’, which espouses the principle of being honest but in a way that is sensitive and helpful to the recipient in order to foster better development and personal growth, or to just to maintain good relationships whilst encouraging change. 

Over recent months, in the wake of this pandemic and during a summer of social unrest, the ratio of awkward conversations that are sure to have occurred in organisations, irrespective of sector, would’ve inevitably increased. 

Pre-COVID, asking for flexible working arrangements or raising the issue of why a colleague with the exact same job description as you is being paid more, exemplifies awkward work topics for critical discussion. In this new reality though, furlough and redundancy provide rich, fertile ground for difficult conversations to flourish. Ensuing anger directed at businesses off the back of the Black Lives Matter protests for the role they inadvertently play in sustaining systemic racism will have also prompted difficult questioning. 

Certainly, in my recent consultations with businesses and leaders, I’ve had to precisely guide and counsel them through such explosive territory. Why is there only one black person / people of colour in our team? Why hasn’t the business responded to this internally, never mind externally, asking how their BAME employees feel? Why don’t we have any diversity & inclusion initiatives? All such questions are precursors to hard, mentally loaded conversations that can conflagrate before being discussed calmly. 

Subject and issues, formally taboo, have come to the fore at a time of heightened emotional sensitivity because of the challenges of quarantine and lockdown. The truth is, to undertake awkward conversations is to jump the first important hurdle, often toward necessary change. Therefore the challenge must be faced head on. Uncomfortable as this may be, inertia and preserving the status quo is often worse. 

The first rule of thumb? To signpost and preface the dialogue with a simple acknowledgement that this is going to be a difficult or awkward discussion. Often this can be disarming, but it also mentally primes both parties for the unfolding conversation. 

Secondly, focus on the objective and desired outcome of the conversation, but don’t script it. This stiffens the discourse, making it appear inauthentic, scheming even. The ability to stay human and compassionate, in language and in tone, is the key to fostering an open discussion that evolves organically, whilst at the same time aligning with the end purpose of the conversation. 

Often, it’s not necessarily what we say but the way in which we say it that is the real bone of contention in awkward discussions. When tensions and tempers flair up, one side needs to diffuse a negatively charged situation by staying calm and slowing the pace of the conversation down. The simple act of staying quiet for a moment and listening as the other lets off steam can, in itself, be incredibly effective in disarming inflamed defences which can facilitate productive discussions. 

Earlier on in my career, when I was a working as a chartered accountant at a large firm, a colleague alerted me to the fact that someone senior in the business was taking personal potshots at me. This person was largely known, internally, to be quite political in their dealings – trampling on anyone deemed a threat or who had good relationships with those at the top. 

The choice was there: I could either ignore or it, or tackle it head on. After some deliberation, I elected the latter approach. I asked the person in question if we could have an open conversation to see whether there was anything that could be done to remedy how we worked together. And while nothing came of it (it seemed that I must’ve ‘shocked’ them into silence by having the temerity to speak out in the first place), I was glad to have broached the subject. 

This teeing up of awkward conversations has stayed with me ever since. The process doesn’t get easier but focusing on the benefits of a positive outcome may galvanise you to break that crucial communication barrier. 

Another case I knew of was that of a mid-management woman who summoned up the courage to speak to her bosses about her desire to start a family. Yes, she was ambitious in her career, but she did not want this to compromise on her dream of eventually having children. For many women, this can be tantamount to career suicide with their commitment to the job called into question; the simple act of asking, injuring prospects of promotion.

Indeed, it was a gamble, yet through broaching the tricky subject and asking for flexible work practices so she could undergo IVF, her wish was granted. And it propelled her to really succeed in her work to the point where, when she came back from maternity leave, she was even promoted to director. True story with an idyllic end that, unfortunately, is more the exception than the rule. But we can all take stock from this story: embarking on a tricky conversation in the first place can lead to positive negotiation and exploration of solutions that would otherwise never be discussed had silence been maintained. 

There is a much more personal reason as to why I advocate having awkward conversations, and why this shapes my business mentoring practices. I’m aware, first hand, that suppression and avoidance leads the problem to manifest itself in a far more dramatic and injurious way.

When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer about 8 years ago, I kept the information initially from the rest of immediate family whilst I figured out a way in which to break the news. Yet I was dealing with this upset alone. When my teenage daughter jumped on my laptop and asked me, “Why has someone been googling ‘breast cancer’”, I blurted out the news “…because it’s what Grandma has”. She was inconsolable. Needless to say, I conducted some research on the Macmillan website about how best to talk to the family about a new cancer diagnosis in a controlled and sensitive way. Even to this day, my brother says that although this was one of the most difficult conversations we have ever had, he really appreciated how I’d delivered it.

Awkward conversations – both business and personal – are not without pain. The key therefore is to mitigate and ameliorate rather than to eliminate. What I’ve learnt first-hand in business and in life is, only from this position of difficulty and discomfort can the positives of progression and moving on be achieved. Let’s strive to embrace them and not avoid them.  

About the Author:

Sheryl Miller is an award winning serial entrepreneur, business coach and author of Smashing Stereotypes: How To Get Ahead When You’re The Only _____ In The Room.