What Causes Uncomfortable Work Conversations And How To Avoid Them

by May 14, 2019Blog, Culture0 comments

The foundation of good communication isn’t the words but the feelings underlying them.

As leaders, we set the tone for communication in our businesses. We know that we set an example, and that the way we communicate will set the tone for the organization. But why is this important? And how can we break out of the trap of toxic communication to improve both the happiness and the productivity of those around us?

The Importance of Good Communication

Good communication is important for a number of reasons.

Most obviously, there are the inefficiencies that come with poor communication. A study by academics at the Harvard Medical School and the University of Boston found that over $12 billion per year is wasted in the US medical sector alone due to inefficiencies caused by poor communication.

Communication is an important factor in limiting conflicts, improving employee satisfaction and avoiding employee burnout. Other studies have shown how communication variables play a direct part in satisfaction and burnout, and so in both the productivity of your workforce and how long they stick with you.

Good communication is not just nice to have. It’s vital to the smooth running of any business.

Creating Positivity

Yet poor communication is the norm in many businesses. Typical workplace conversations contain four times as much rehashing of past problems and assigning of blame as they do focusing on the present and looking to the future. This leads to an atmosphere of fear and tension, and increases the number of uncomfortable conversations. It creates a combative mentality that prevents cooperation.

Even trying to lighten the mood can do damage when it’s done wrong. Aggressive humor may feel like light banter to the person using it, but in reality it’s about disparaging others to manipulate them, and does more harm than good.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t crack jokes – quite the opposite. Humor can increase happiness by up to 42%, and a study found that subjects who watched a comedy video beforehand were nearly four times as likely to solve a problem.

Positive communication is something that you can model and teach from a position of leadership. If you find yourself using negative humor, assigning blame or focusing on the past then stop and re-think. Look for a more positive thing to say, one that asserts shared values and focuses on future achievements and solutions. If you hear others in positions of leadership dwelling in the negative then take them aside and let them know the harm they’re doing. It’s only by providing a set of positive models that you can improve communication.

Understanding Discomfort

This isn’t to say that you can completely do away with uncomfortable conversations, or keep avoiding them in favor of jokes and dreams. Certain conversations in particular make people uncomfortable. A recent survey by Fractl showed that most people feel uncomfortable when discussing accountability or tackling a difficult person.

If they aren’t addressed then uncomfortable issues will fester, and so those conversations need to be had. But this can lead to a bullish approach, trying to tackle the problem immediately and head on. If you’re focused on creating more positive communication then it can be particularly tempting to charge into such conversations to see them over and done with.

Instead, take a step back and consider the causes behind a difficult conversation. If people are avoiding accountability, why is that? If an employee is being difficult, what is making them uncomfortable? Are you uncomfortable because they’re being troublesome, or because they’re challenging your assumptions?

Understanding the discomfort will allow you to steer the conversation away from a head-on conflict over the surface issue. Instead, you can tackle the underlying patterns. This will lead to better communication, more substantial solutions, and a calmer atmosphere. If emotional energy isn’t being spent on arguments then it can be spent on positive interactions, humor and fun, making the positive side of office life more emotionally fulfilling than the dramas. If negativity is where all the emotional fulfilment lies, then people will drift towards it.

Managing Your Emotions

This, ultimately, is the bedrock of good communication – not the words, but the feelings underlying them. Yes, the words are important in expressing and shaping those emotions. But emotions are what shape people’s satisfaction and productivity. Strong emotions bring out the best and the worst in us.

As a leader, your emotions can have a huge impact on the people around you. You therefore need to be aware of what you are feeling and how it is affecting you. Practice mindfulness techniques, taking ten minutes out when things get difficult just to focus on your breathing, empty your mind and see what thoughts or feelings emerge. Study them, see where they are coming from, and let go of negative thoughts when you can. When you can’t let go, look at what you can do to change the situation.

Managing your emotions in difficult conversations is important. You’re the example to your employees of calmness and positivity, emotions that will create better communication. But suppressing negative emotions won’t help you to do this, any more than dwelling on them will. You need to understand where your own mind is at.

By fostering positivity, understanding causes of discomfort and managing your own emotions you can create better communication around you, and set an example of it throughout your business.

Mark Lukens, MBA

Mark Lukens, MBA

Founding Partner at Capatus
Mark Lukens is a founding partner at Capatus and located in the New York office. He leads the Capatus’ Global Talent and Advisory practice. He is also an expert in the firm’s research and nonprofit practice. Lukens has more than 20 years of c-level executive and consulting experience delivering strategies and transformational programs to firms ranging from start-up to Fortune 50. He has worked with clients in Europe, North America, South America, and Asia. Lukens worked extensively in various product and service categories including health care, life sciences, government, nonprofit, technology, and professional services. He also advises clients in other industries including commercial and industrial, retail, logistics and transportation, media and more. Lukens serves on several Nonprofit Boards and is a professor at the State University of New York where he teaches in the School of Business and Economics with a focus on marketing, international management, entrepreneurship, HR, and organizational behavior to name a few. Lukens has a technical background as a MCSE and earned an MBA from Eastern University.
Mark Lukens, MBA


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