Being in sales, I guess you can say I do uncomfortable conversations for a living. I don’t see it that way, as I look at myself as an educator and not a salesperson. Or, maybe I ended up in sales BECAUSE I developed the capacity to have uncomfortable conversations with others. TRUST ME when I tell, it is a short cut to a better future, and I firmly believe that. I will give specific examples as I go here…
In a sales capacity, rarely do I find myself in a situation where I need to inform a prospective client that we are not the right fit for them. The service my company provides is a fit for almost anyone who has a need in our vertical, but not every client sees things the way we do. If the client has a “profit over employee care” mentality, we are not going to align. What we as a company provide is focused on employee care FIRST, and the by-product of that is savings for the company. Not every employer looks at the world through this lens, and when I stumble upon someone who does, I have to have the uncomfortable conversation of A. the risk of liability they are incurring, B. the other concerns that impact their bottom line, and C. and most importantly in my mind, the selfish and greedy approach to care of their staff that they are choosing. Imagine that, sitting across the conference room table or on a ZOOM session with the CEO and others from a company and telling them that they are doing it wrong (in my opinion) and that if they do not wish to do things in a better fashion for everyone involved, we do not want your business.
Now, this may sounds like a really nice moral stance to take, and a percentage of the thought process is just that. But much of it is the fact that we know that if the client’s objectives are not aligned with ours, they are not going to use the system properly and the results they get are not going to be what they are desiring. But you can’t have it both ways, so in some ways, for the betterment of the working relationship, it is “my way or the highway”. We have learned this the hard way, and have paid the price. And THAT is the lesson to be had here: by having this uncomfortable conversation up front and setting the right expectations, we can now move forward together towards the common goal. Think about how many ugly conversations we had with angry clients that had a very different idea of how the service should work and what the results would be. That was MULTIPLE conversations and eventually a “break up” with the client leaving us and being angry about the time and money they wasted. Nobody wins when this happens.
The other glaring example is when you have to make a call to a client that is angry or when you are going to deliver news that you know is going to make someone angry. It is no fun, believe me. Sometimes a really small thing gets blown out of proportion and you get the full brunt of someone’s wrath: been there, done that and it sucks. In almost every case, it is not personal, so don’t make it or take it that way. If you’re in sales and the production team missed a deadline, you still have to be the bearer of bad news and incur the wrath. Assuming you didn’t make a promise that couldn’t be delivered upon in the first place, some things are out of everyone’s control. Supplies are delivered late, Mother Nature intervenes in some way, etc., etc. A reasonable explanation doesn’t mean that you’re gonna off the hook, so prepare for the worst and hope for better. But HAVE THE CONVO, otherwise you are going to make things worse the longer you put them off.
Avoidance never leads to resolution
Speaking of break ups, this is an easy segue into the next reason to learn how to have uncomfortable conversations…your relationships. This is a broad definition, which includes family, friends, co-workers and of course your love interests. I have learned this lesson the hard way, glossing over mistreatment, bad habits, toxic behaviors and more in effort to avoid having that dreaded sit-down, adult conversation to resolve issues, change behaviors, learn and grow, or to cut ties and move on. And yes, this includes family, friends, co-workers and of course your love interests. Not everyone sees this the same way I do, but I will give you a family-oriented example shortly. I have worked for employers that have been mean, disrespectful, degrading, completely selfish and more, and looking back I really question why I stayed in those situations as long as I did. There are times when a conversation will not solve any problems, and thinking a sit down meeting with the owner of a company to discuss their outlook on life and how they treat people is likely to just get me fired. So, choose your “battles” wisely. A toxic relationship is just that…poison for your soul. If you can’t fix it, get away from the one who provides the poison in the first place.
Yes, you can break up with your family members if needed. I did. I don’t want to give too much context about this out of respect for the innocent parties involved and affected by this, but suffice to say that a toxic individual that I would loathe having to be in the same room with for any family function drove me to the point of dreading the family gatherings as a whole. The decision to no longer be associated (exposed to) with this individual caused a rift in the family from that point forward. I was not the only one who felt this way, but I was the only one who ever made my thoughts public. Did it change the relationship with some of the family members? Yes, without a doubt. But for my own sanity I HAD to do it, and again, in retrospect, I should have done it sooner. I encourage you to work hard to fix and resolve any situation that can be, but there comes a time when you will have to admit that you have exercised every option possible and nothing is going to change. If and when you reach this point, rip the Band-Aid off in one shot, don’t pull it centimeter by centimeter, it will hurt worse and you’ll endure more pain for a longer period of time.
In effort to add context and an actionable piece of advice, let’s dissect the physiological response that accompanies these uncomfortable conversations, and realize that the feelings you experience are just that…feelings. It is not an actual biological response unless you allow it to be. When I allowed things to build up for so many years with the particular family member mentioned above, yes, I did have a biological response. I was literally physically ill later on after the initial blow up that occurred. There was enough pain and anger built up that I wanted to physically harm that person but luckily things did not escalate to that level. IF you let things build up to that level, you will have to deal with this kind of biological response. But this is (should be) a very rare occurrence. Most of the time it is more like the nervousness you’d feel for a job interview or a big competition. Everyone deals with this differently, but there are definitely things that work across the board as “best practices” for dealing with this level of anxiety:
Diaphragmatic Breathing – yes, it sounds so fundamental, but it is the key to handling any situation to the best of your ability. By breathing in this fashion, you intentionally short-circuit the fight or flight response process your body and mind automatically click into when facing a scary situation. While it can help you run away from a saber tooth tiger, it is going to hinder you in everyday situations that do not have that level of dire physical consequences.
Visualization – If you are aware of a pending difficult conversation, try to visualize how the conversation will go in advance. Of course you are going to assume the worst possible outcome, that is a given, which is why you are so nervous about it. Regardless of that, visualize yourself HANDLING IT in a poised and calm manner throughout the process. Picture yourself being as calm, cool and collected as you WOULD possibly want to be. Rehearse NOT reacting to someone’s words or their own reaction to something you say. Just sit, calmly, and listen to what they have to say. Allow them time to explode if necessary, vent, and then calm down to a reasonable level where the two of you can speak like adults WITH one another, instead of AT one another. Easier thought than executed, I know…but prepare as best you can in advance.
Modeling – as a subset to the above thought instead of a completely different idea, modeling yourself after someone you KNOW would handle this difficult conversation better than the current version of yourself is another option. Many athletes have used this, unsure if they could win the golf tournament, but knowing that Tiger Woods could. So, they become Tiger for that moment in time, and let him “take the wheel”. They picture Tiger hitting the shots instead of themselves, even though (obviously) it is them who is executing the shots. You can use this for your uncomfortable conversations as well. Go on YouTube and search examples to follow. Here is one, and if the topic that they are discussing is not something you wish to hear being debated, turn off the sound. It is not WHAT they are saying, but HOW they are saying it and handling themselves that matters. Model yourself after that.
Everything takes practice, and many people avoid the things that they fear or are uncomfortable. This is very detrimental, and can cause months of not years of suffering that cumulatively would be far worse that one uncomfortable conversation would have been. Here’s a great example: when my wife and I first got married (after being together for five years already) several people asked me if we had discussed having kids yet. OF COURSE WE DID…this was a conversation on DATE #2. People were shocked at this answer in some cases, but think about the alternative. We date for a while, get engaged, married and then she finds out that I do not want to have kids. That would be devastating for both of us, and a huge waste of valuable time for the one of us with biological limitations for having kids. Not fair to either one of us, and now we are faced with the problem of either breaking up and getting divorced or one of us making a HUGE compromise to make the other happy. I am fairly certain you can guess how that would end up….
After reading the above examples, I hope you see that one uncomfortable conversation may save you months if not a lifetime of anxiety, anger and resentment. I hope putting things in this context helps you see that THIS IS the way to go, to face the task at hand, handle it well, and move on accordingly. Don’t avoid it; you are breathing life into it every time you do. You’re life will be better for it…
I wish you luck in your endeavors.