“The best way out is always through.” ― Robert Frost, American Poet
How do you approach a glaring problem at work, or deal with something that’s gone wrong? Or relay bad news, without making things even worse? Maybe you tried before and did just that? Whatever the angle, delivering difficult conversations is no small task for leaders (nor anyone else, for that matter).
The anticipation or the fallout can make you feel like you’re treading on eggshells every day. What if I say the wrong thing? Could this derail the task at hand? What if they aren’t willing to work so cooperatively with me anymore? It can drain you of energy and motivation and affect your productivity. (Igbinoba et al, 2019). You’re so stressed by the time the conversation does come around, saying the wrong thing is much more likely.
We’re all too aware of the truth in that saying: that it takes years to build bridges and mere moments to tear them down in a single triggering event (Reina & Reina, 2010, pp. 5 – 6). When people feel passionately about a subject, and emotions are heightened or intentions unclear, miscommunications can easily occur. With the relationships between colleagues being so vital for increasing personal and organisational productivity, it is essential to have the skills to deliver those looming conversations in a constructive and focused manner.
Conflict resolution and learning how to tackle difficult conversations are important parts of leadership development. It’s also simply a matter of adjusting your mindset and developing awareness through agile learning.
“Difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict.”- William Ellery Channing, American Theologian
Why Do We Avoid Difficult Conversations?
Is an employee struggling to cope? Are they under-performing? Does a manager need to fire someone, or make them redundant? Or perhaps turn down leave or a request for flexibility. Is there a personality clash in the team? Perhaps someone is hurt that they didn’t get that promotion. Or rallying against a new manager or their decisions. Someone could be making inappropriate comments about a colleague. Or they could simply need comforting because of personal problems.
It’s natural to shy away from workplace conflict. It throws us out of our comfort zone. The conversation requires us to manage our emotions and can go awry very quickly. One study found that 70% of employees avoid tough conversations at work (Bravely, 2009). Why?
- Lack of confidence – Our inner critic can be deafening during times of trouble.
- Unsure of the desired outcome – Stress can make it hard to focus on the end-goal or even see clearly what it is.
- Fear of rejection – No one strives to make enemies at work; we all just want to be liked and respected for who we are.
- Fear of upsetting someone – Fear that means we end up shelving our own feelings.
- Bad past experiences – They can feed fears of what might happen.
“Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood” – Marie Curie, Polish Physicist and Chemist
The True Cost of Evasion
It’s high. U.S. employees spend almost three hours every week dealing with workplace conflict. 22% report that it led to illness and absence from work, and 10% reported a failure of a project because of it. Workplace conflict also puts a lot of strain on the resources of HR departments. 51% spend between one and five hours each week managing disagreements. (CPP, Inc., 2008, pp.1-6)
Like ever-increasing piles of washing up and unpaid bills, avoiding difficult conversations won’t make them go away. Ignored problems will fester and bubble until they explode, most often when the stakes are highest, and pressures are felt most. Organisations can be sure that those explosions will cause a lot more damage than any initial ripples.
Avoiding them puts your business at risk of:
- Creating a toxic environment filled with dysfunctional teams and people
- Lower levels of morale and productivity
- Disengaged employees who don’t get the chance to grow or learn from mistakes
- Projecting the unhealthy notion that problems either don’t exist or matter, leading to high-risk organisational ‘blind spots’ for leaders
- A lack of organisational agility needed to respond to changing market demands
- Encouraging talent to leave and deterring new talent from joining the organisation
Soon, your best talent is leaving for a fresh start somewhere else. No doubt taking with them career scars and bad memory baggage that will come back to haunt them at the next tough conversation.
However, a direct and constructive approach to difficult conversations will help us to develop ourselves into proactive and authentic individuals, ready for any hurdle.
“You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” ― William Faulkner, American Author
We Need Challenges and Feedback to Grow
In all areas of life, not just work. They help us to see what we want, what we value, and what we should be developing. Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg encourages all of her team to engage in difficult conversations every week. She claims that they’re an essential ingredient in personal growth and organisational development.
We’re not wrong for feeling the way we do—we’re all just different, with our own preferences. Self-awareness is essential for a successful and fulfilling life and career. Without that self-awareness, we’ll find ourselves needing to have many more of those hard conversations.
“The obstacle is the path.” – Zen Proverb
Our personality assessment , Lumina Spark, helps everyone to understand and respect those differences; to gain that crucial self-awareness and awareness of how others work, through agile learning. It provides an accurate, personalised reading of an individual’s unique personality and strengths, and practical actions for improved communication, productivity, teamwork and leadership development.
We Judge Ourselves Based on Our Intentions but Judge Others Based on their Behaviour
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” – Carl Jung, Swiss Psychiatrist
When people are passionate and emotions are heightened, misinterpretations can make those conversations even more challenging. We can never assume what someone else is thinking or feeling. Impact doesn’t always equal intent, either. Let’s not reduce people.
Typically, most of us make three key mistakes during tough conversations (Stone, Patton and Heen, 2011):
- We hide our emotions—or unleash them in ways we afterwards regret.
- We assume we know everything required to understand and explain a situation.
- We ignore who we are, acting as if our personality is separate from the problem.
It’s easy to lose sight of ourselves in such a stressful situation. How many times have you walked away thinking, “I wish I hadn’t said that”? Lumina Spark helps to stop that from happening. How? By providing a language that removes confusion and the potential for misinterpretation.
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates, Greek Philosopher
Lumina Spark reduces the bias inherent in many other popular psychometrics. It shows individuals how to work with every aspect of their dynamic personality (Yes, people can change!). Lumina Spark measures 24 qualities across 3 levels of ourselves—our Underlying Persona, our Everyday Persona, and our Overextended Persona. So, who we are at our most natural (Underlying), our public self (Everyday), and who we are when we feel overwhelmed (Overextended). It’s your whole personality measured in one assessment.
It shows us exactly how each person is a valuable and integral part of the team. We can all learn to respect each other and communicate better under pressure, while staying true to ourselves. It’s a practical step towards solidifying teams, improving relationships and creating healthier and more productive organisations, through employee and leadership development, at all levels.
“Without self-awareness we are as babies in the cradles.” – Virginia Woolf, British Author
Your Three Personas and Overextensions
Taking time to become more self-aware is a great place to start for becoming more effective in your communication during difficult conversations. This is why the Three Persona model works so well. It accounts for the fact that you do regularly shift your personality dependent on your surroundings, even if subtly.
Knowing your Three Personas is key for knowing what good and bad looks like for you personally, and to know what the behavioural and communication implications will look to everyone else when there is a shift in your personality. This means you can adapt your ‘way of being’ to the conversation you are having and to the person you are having it with, knowing what is likely to work and what is unlikely to work. Crucially, your Overextended Persona will reveal what happens when things go wrong.
- This is who you are at your most natural and at ease with yourself
- It might be hard for others to see these Qualities in you
- This is the “you that you approve of”
- How you like to be seen by society, work etc.
- This is how you choose to apply your energy, day to day
- This could be how you feel when under stress or pressure
- This could be how you are perceived when you overplay a Quality
Don’t have your own Lumina Spark Portrait? No problem; simply consider which of the 8 Lumina Spark Aspects (inside the rather colourful Lumina Spark Mandala below) relate to you most across each Persona. Picking your top two Aspects for each Persona is a simple and effective way to do this.
If you find the 8 Aspects a little too broad for reflecting you accurately, then skip straight to the 24 Lumina Spark Qualities (placed around the outside of the Mandala below) to gain a much deeper and nuanced view of you self. If doing so, pick your top 4 Qualities for each Persona. For those of you who already have a Lumina Spark Portrait – be sure to reflect using the Overextended Qualities on the flip side of the Mandala when looking at your Overextended Persona.
Make a record of these and be curious next time you feel the Aspects or Qualities coming into action. Is the Aspect or Quality helping you in the situation and are you noticing what triggers your personality to shift?
The Lumina Spark Mandala; 8 Aspects inside the Mandala and 24 Qualities on the outside of the Mandala. On the flipside of the Mandala, the Overextended version of the 24 Qualities are displayed.
Don’t assume all your personality will come from only one or two of the same Aspects or Qualities either, our research says very different! Be prepared to embrace the paradox of your personality – many people actually score highly on seemingly opposite personality traits simultaneously, which many personality assessments will fail to measure or even consider. Want to get a little more serious? Download the Lumina Splash App for free and take a shortened down version of our assessment (It takes just sixty seconds with gamified swiping!) – this will give you some great introductory reflections to work from if you’re not sure where to start in developing your self-awareness.
Personality in the palm of your hand – the free Lumina Splash App offers instant feedback about your personality
For our qualified Lumina Learning Practitioners – you can use the Lumina Splash App scan your own or anyone else’s full Lumina Spark Portrait onto your device using the QR code. This allows you or your team to self-coach in great detail when ever you want or share information. Best of all, you’ll get a digital animation of your personalty changing across the Three Personas to visualise the shift and bring your personality to life. Likewise you can overlay your own unique splash (the visualisation of your assessment result and personality) with your colleagues’ for quick an easy comparison of personalities.
It’s Time to Stop Saying, “Leave Your Emotions at the Door”
This sort of thinking can be counterproductive, even if well-intended. If we want to create predictive and accurate solutions for handling difficult conversations, then we need to understand the realities our colleagues are facing, because their perception of the situation is a major factor in the likelihood of any solution succeeding. This is why we believe in putting the individual at the heart of everything we do. Organisational development requires every leader to understand and manage their personality and emotions in a difficult conversation, be able to respond effectively to the personalities of their colleagues, and help guide their colleagues in the right direction, too.
Lumina Emotion refutes the traditional, polarised view that our “Personality” is something which we cannot change while our “Emotional Intelligence” is a learnable and unrelated skill. It uses the Big5 model to demonstrate that personality traits actually underpin the majority of traditional emotional competencies. We take a holistic view because we know that all traits can be helpful and effective in their own way.
Our approach embraces Viktor Frankl’s idea of choosing our response in any given situation and then consciously managing our personality depending on our situation. Lumina Emotion gives everyone that power.
Our Lumina Emotion personality assessment gives every individual the opportunity to grow their emotional intelligence, adaptability and resilience, through agile learning. It does this by focusing on 16 Emotional Qualities that determine how we understand, adapt and manage our emotions day to day. Each personalised portrait shows individuals where their preferences, strengths and areas for improvement are.
Managing the Conversation
When we recognise different frames of mind via transactional analysis, we know that the best state during workplace conflict is adult to adult. However, when we overextend, we might be seen as lacking confidence and being disengaged, or as overemotional or rebellious. This can act as a trigger to a parent state in the other person – they could become the critical parent in response.
Overextending will nearly always make the situation worse by contributing to an overly negative atmosphere. It’s also more likely to stimulate rebellion than obedience. Viewing these states through the Lumina Emotional Reactors, however, can help you better regulate yourself during the conversation.
How do you manage your state? Ask yourself, ‘What do I want to create?’ Presumably, you want to create a conversation that’s open, and encourages sharing, so you can work out a resolution with the other person.
Then ask yourself, ‘What do I need to be to create this?’ Lumina Spark helps you to see which of your Qualities you’ll draw on to be. The mandala offers emotional states that you can commit to generating in the moment, so you can pick the ones that will help you.
Remember: Event + Response = Outcome. If you are clear about the outcome that you want, you are more able to make choices in your responses and behaviour. It’s important to:
- Begin with the end in mind – Keep the outcome at the forefront of your mind throughout the conversation.
- Structure the conversation – You don’t have to follow it religiously, but it can be very helpful. Ask plenty of questions and practice active listening.
- Understand the other person’s reality – That means developing self-awareness, valuing deep diversity (the usefulness of alternative approaches of colleagues), building rapport and learning how to speed-read (see our speedreading guide below)
Leading and pacing may come naturally at times. However, consciously focusing on it is a useful practise that results in a more helpful situation. Whilst we can go in at the 24 Qualities level for a deeper dive, don’t shy away from using the 8 Aspects, too. They can help you quickly find and understand the other person’s reality, to build rapport:
Lumina Spark uses smart data and simple language to provide easy-to-action suggestions on building rapport
Your Mirrored Self and Your Personality Opposite
You might easily spot someone who scores highly for the Qualities that are opposite to the Qualities you are high on. However, it may be harder to recognise when you’re having trouble working with someone very similar to you. It can be very helpful—your strengths can mesh, and you intuitively understand how one another thinks. However, two people with a desire to be the best can lead to intense rivalry, clashes or stagnation. Two people who communicate in a very outcome-focused manner can lead to unhelpful bluntness, with feelings hurt and goodwill lost. Likewise, two people who both communicate in very a people-focused manner may have trouble in keeping collaborative tasks on track. Neither person is likely to suggest when their individual workload and actions are more important and should be prioritised to achieve an objective.
Working with your opposite can mean that your working relationship can be quite harmonious. If your opposite has a talent for avoiding conflict and motivating you, for example. However, productivity aside, there may be a lack of trust if they believe you put your own interests first.
You can use Lumina Spark to:
- Compare yourself at the Everyday Persona
- Compare yourself at the Overextended Persona
- Know how to prepare for the conversation in a way that will be effective for all parties involved
- Speedreading; learning to quickly assess someone’s personality and will help you to step into the other person’s shoes, and dial up and down to meet them in an effective way
Leaders Require Specific Training
Training that not many receive. It’s no wonder that leaders get so nervous at the prospect of having difficult conversations. After all, how often do they actually go smoothly and end in happy resolution?
Conflict resolution depends on how well leaders know themselves and those around them. Our personality assessment, Lumina Leader, increases managers’ awareness of their unique leadership style and shows them the impact that it has on their teams. It provides clear steps for leadership development. With Lumina Leader 360, managers can see themselves exactly as their employees do, for even greater understanding.
A personality assessment like Lumina Leader helps you to feel more confident in ambiguous situations and make better decisions. It shows every leader how to maximise strengths and remove limitations. It shows them how to better influence their teams through improved communication, agile learning and conflict resolution. Organisations can be sure that every leader is truly adding value, motivating and empowering others, subsequently increasing turnover.
“If we manage conflict constructively, we harness its energy for creativity and development.” – Kenneth Kaye, American Psychologist
The Conversation: 8 Tips for Leaders
Addressing workplace conflict and challenging conversations head-on is like anything else: the more you practise, the better and more confident you’ll become. Leaders must be sure:
- To think about location. Is your office always best? Or neutral territory, such as a café or meeting room, where the power dynamic feels a bit more even and there’s no desk barrier?
- To think about body language. Staying at eye level with the other person is best, so no one is physically above or below someone else. Leaning forward, nodding, smiling and positive, direct eye contact suggest positive engagement and intentions.
- To be respectful. Respect for each other should be at the core of every difficult conversation. Negative emotions will make people react defensively and shut down, or angrily and bite back. No blaming, threats or interrupting. Just trust and honesty. They usually inspire the same from the other person, making conflict resolution much easier.
- To speak directly. In a calm but frank manner. Overgeneralising words such as “never,” “always,” “nothing” and, “everything” aren’t helpful. Tone of voice should indicate exploration, not accusation. Lumina Spark helps managers have a clear conversation with zero waffle and no misunderstandings.
- To listen properly. Everyone wants to feel heard. It’s hard for someone to change if they think they aren’t understood. Difficult conversations are mostly listening and reflecting, or at least they should. Leaders must gather as much detail as possible about what the other person is experiencing. That means active listening on both sides and taking notes for questions later, rather than thinking about what you’ll say next.
- To have clear objectives. Conflict resolution is not about winning or losing. What is the ideal outcome? What does each person need? What are the potential obstacles? It should be clear from the start what’s being discussed, and how the manager wants it to go and move forward. If an employee didn’t get that promotion this time, leaders should demonstrate that they’re invested in helping them to acquire the skills necessary for success next time. If someone is being fired, leaders should tell them constructively what went wrong, to help support them into their new workplace.
- To discard assumptions. Even if you’ve worked together for decades, don’t assume you can automatically guess each other’s thoughts and feelings. People grow and evolve. So do our needs. How has each person contributed to the issue? Our range of assessments designed to select, on-board and develop help everyone to see others’ intentions, whether you’re the CEO, new employee or candidate for a role. It helps everyone to become more open-minded and focused on learning and problem-solving, rather than being in the right.
- To manage emotions. When someone finds our weak spots, it’s easy to lose sight of the end goal and revert to a combat mentality by lashing out or shutting down. Instead, everyone should express feelings constructively, with “I”, not, “You,” statements. Instead of, “You make me angry when…,” they should say, “When I hear you say… I feel/it impacts…” and focus on behaviours, not character. Lumina Emotion helps individuals to understand their triggers and reactions, so tough conversations can be had without any overextended behaviour. It teaches us how to manage our personality effectively to suit changing contextual demands, whatever our natural qualities may be. So, leaders can keep the conversation on track and maintain a positive mindset.
- To follow up. Document the conversation and commit to actions to deal with the issue. Lumina Spark’s personalised portraits put the individual in control of their development, allowing them to make genuine breakthroughs in their understanding and create action plans which they will be able to deliver. The Lumina Splash App is ultimate assistant for this, putting learning into the hands of users with immediate accessibility and encouragement of self-development. You don’t plan for breakthroughs, so make sure you have the tools to maximise the impact when they happen happen.
“The better able team members are to engage, speak, listen, interpret, and respond constructively, the more likely their teams are to leverage conflict rather than be levelled by it.” – Runde and Flanagan, American Authors
“The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.” – Dolly Parton, American Singer-Songwriter
Organisations and leaders need to focus on creating opportunities for growth from workplace conflict. It’s every leader’s responsibility to develop the self-awareness necessary to make difficult conversations happen smoothly—and to encourage it in others. Organisational development requires everyone to identify and play to their strengths; to focus on growth, agile learning and productivity.
Our tools help everyone to uncover, understand and fine-tune their emotional landscape. They guide effective thinking and meaningful behaviour, helping to channel behaviour towards organisational and development goals. A personality assessment is the first step in leadership development, creating an emotionally intelligent organisation and transforming difficult conversations into growth.
Want to learn more? Our last webinar was focused on Difficult Conversations—Lumina Learning Practitioners can access the call recording in the follow up email sent to them, or via the Practitioner Resource Portal.
Subscribe here to see more on managing conflicts at work.
What was your last difficult conversation about? What would you do differently? How would Lumina Spark have helped? Let us know your thoughts and experiences across social media @LuminaLearning. Don’t forget to follow us on all major platforms for regular useful content!
 Igbinoba, E., Salau, O., Falola, H., Olokundun, M., & Ogueyungbo, O. (2019). Workplace Conflict Management and Administrative Productivity of Staff of Selected ICT Driven Public Universities. International Journal of Mechanical Engineering and Technology, 10(3), pp 133 – 143. Retrieved from http://ow.ly/qzV650yINOo
 Reina, D., & Reina, M. (2010). Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace: The Need for Building Effective Relationships in Your Organisation (ed. 2). Oakland, California: Berrett-Koehler. Retrieved from https://www.bkconnection.com/static/reinaexcerpt.pdf
 Bravely. (2009). The Cost of the Conversation Gap on Workplace Health. Retrieved from https://learn.workbravely.com/cost-of-the-conversation-gap
 CPP, Inc. (2008). Workplace Conflict and How Businesses Can Harness it to Thrive. Retrieved from https://shop.themyersbriggs.com/Pdfs/CPP_Global_Human_Capital_Report_Workplace_Conflict.pdf
 Stone, D., Patton, B,. & Heen, S. (2011). Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. Viking.
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