As an organizational development leader and professional coach, I regularly receive requests from leaders for help with their “soft skills” and, more specifically, their communication skills. They often explain to me that they’ve done a workshop on difficult conversations, an online class on improving dialogue styles, or an assessment that explained to them how others perceive their strengths and opportunities in communication.
The next part of our conversation is almost always the same. They share that the training or assessment didn’t work. I ask them for their thoughts on why, we start exploring, and these leaders often end up in the same place: an accountability conversation with themselves that ends with, “I didn’t work to apply the tools I learned.”
Growth doesn’t happen unless we push ourselves. Taking a class or an assessment is great for awareness, but we typically don’t pass from awareness to development without the discomfort of working to apply what we learn in real-world settings. This means having a conversation a different way and, usually, not knowing what the outcome will be, because we just stepped into courage, and it led us to a vulnerable place. So many people have the mindset that they can’t try to have a conversation they perceive to be difficult without being “perfect” communication skills.
I have some freeing news for you: No one has perfect communication skills; some just keep trying, while others stay the same in their place of comfort over courage.
Be the person who tries! Here are some tips to use as a leader for some of the more challenging types of conversations.
The Accountability Conversation
A common conversation for leaders is around a team member’s lack of accountability. This conversation is difficult, because it is often perceived as subjective by the receiver of the feedback. The sender, usually the leader, has examples to share, but the receiver, usually the team member, isn’t owning their part in the conversation.
If you’re a vulnerable leader, striving to help others reach their best, then you’ve probably had this conversation. One tool you can use is the accountability ladder, which helps keep the accountability conversation on point. Use the tool to have the team member identify what they think about the area you are discussing.
It’s a powerful coaching technique when you ask someone to use an objective tool, the accountability ladder, to identify where they feel they are. Most commonly, people point to the “hope and wait” rung on the ladder: They acknowledge they aren’t being fully accountable, but they are close. This acknowledgement opens the door for you to ask them how they take steps up the ladder into accountability: What would their thought process look like? What solutions would they develop?
Tools like the accountability ladder allow for a shift in ego from defensiveness to shared collaboration. Dialogue openly flows as the team member builds a plan for accountability. This conversation doesn’t take perfect communication skills; it simply takes a leader who is willing to use a tool and step with the team member into a place that is focused on solutions, not blame.
The Behavior Conversation
This conversation is the next conversation if the team member is still struggling to step in and own their accountability. As leaders, we often dread this conversation, because we usually have tried to have it before, and the person used deflection tactics like blaming us for an action that allowed the behavior to occur or bringing up another team member’s behavior.
When a team member is working to deflect their subpar behavior onto you or another team member, a great accountability tactic is to say, “Thank you for sharing that! I’d be happy to schedule time to talk about it further, if you’d like. However, this time is scheduled to talk about your behavior, and we are going to continue with that.”
You will most likely have to say this statement a few times in the conversation, but it keeps an open tone for the team member and you. It also lets them know you aren’t shutting down their thoughts, but you have a clear purpose for the conversation at hand, and it will stay on course. It is easy to use, keeps the meeting focused on the original agenda and lets the team member know that they won’t be able to avoid talking about the behavior. It also doesn’t take being a perfect communicator to use it!
Critical conversations are rarely easy, because they are vital conversations that impact people’s careers. However, they are necessary, both for our growth as leaders and for the growth of the people we lead. It is also essential for the people on our team who already own their accountability and behaviors. We owe it to them to take action and acknowledge that we aren’t perfect in our communication and are nervous at times about their outcomes, but we are going to choose courage over comfort and step into the unknown to help others and ourselves grow.