The power of uncomfortable conversations

- Communication

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by Sam, Management 3.0 Team

A person’s success in life is measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations they’re willing to have.

Rarely have I come across a quote that resonated as strongly as this one by Tim Ferris in the 4-Hour Work Week. It struck such a chord that I’ve modeled my business on it, even creating a podcast series asking people to divulge a time when they faced a challenging issue head on.

So it came as an ironic ‘pleasant surprise’ when one of the first meetings with my new teammates at Happy Melly was to sit in on an uncomfortable conversation. Several of the crew had an ongoing issue with a colleague and decided to confront this person. The team was undergoing a restructuring, with recent scaling and new role definition. Some people felt like this colleague was overstepping and taking charge in the wrong areas, while not spending enough time on the tasks that needed to be done.

I was walking into the ‘storming’ phase of team formation. The time where people start pushing the boundaries that were established during Phase One (forming) and where conflicts usually ensue amongst teammates, especially in relation to natural working styles. This is also the stage in the game where many teams fail.

However, as I sat in on what was evidently an extremely difficult chat, what I admired most was how not only direct and honest everybody was, but how respectful they were. No one raised his or her voice, no one was sarcastic, and, at the same time, no one beat around the bush.

Hard conversations don’t have to mean confrontational. #Honesty and #respect go a long way

The gloves were off, it was real, it was authentic and it was awkward, and it put a smile on my face.

It was inspiring to see people tackle hard and uncomfortable issues head on. By saying what was on their minds and being true to their emotions, they were taking their relationships and the team on a whole to the next level.

What I also liked about this conversation was that, on their own volition, everyone left with an ‘action’. Each person on the call committed to either changing something, trying to adjust a behavior or simply deciding to be more aware of certain characteristics. Rarely, in a non-coaching environment have I seen people take it upon themselves to ask what they can change in order to ‘do better’. Without prompting from an external person, the team naturally turned toward: What can I commit to doing in order to move this forward?

Although I was only a few days in, I was already extremely proud to be the newest member of the Happy Melly One team. Yet one pressing question still remained….

What type of organization had I just walked into?

A very different one than anything I’d ever experienced.

Happy Melly was born out of our self-proclaimed ’emperor’, Jurgen Appelo’s desire to run an experiment. We are essentially his Management 3.0 project. A new style of company, one that nurtures innovation at work in a playful and forgiving environment. It’s a team that embodies a merit system, a delegation board and fosters an atmosphere of transparency, happiness, encouragement, risk and being plain straight up.

Yet as I embark on my third ‘official’ week on the job, I’m still trying to figure out exactly how things work. Not so much, ‘What type of work am I doing?’ but more, ‘How does this team work?’

It’s a company with no signed contracts upon employment, no official start date, where they tell you that you’ve been hired on live radio (fabulous surprise), where you get to choose how many days you work each month, with no one checking up on you, where email is basically obsolete (Slack and Trello are the main vehicles for communication) and where you don’t report to anyone.

It’s an atmosphere of genuine trust and respect. In so many ways it’s bliss and in many other ways it’s extremely confusing.

Gone are the ‘norms’ and traditional practices usually associated with working in a company and alongside a team. You’re free to experiment, launch new initiatives, be innovative. You’re free to fail!

Switching this chip within myself has been challenging. As with any new job, you want to get off to the right start, prove yourself, take charge and at the same time not step on anyone’s toes. In a role that’s largely defined and carved out by you and with few guidelines to use as a benchmark, it’s hard to understand and measure your value and productivity. I don’t want to let the team down–yet at the same time, I know that if I start to falter, we’d be able to have an open and honest discussion about it.

Norming, performing and beyond…

I can’t think of a better way for me to have glimpsed into the core of what the Happy Melly team represents than to join the team while they were storming. It’s not only motivated me, but has reinforced just how important it is to overcome the fear that so often holds us back from saying what’s on our minds.

Since the ‘introduction chat’ there appear to be positive changes. It seems like there’s more:

  • Role definition
  • Increased initiative on the right tasks
  • A greater appreciation for each other

Both the transmitting and receiving parties in the talk were patient, honest and receptive. They were eager to truly understand one another and this is the start of the norming phase, when people begin to resolve differences and appreciate colleagues’ strengths. There’s also a stronger commitment to the team goals.

And while we remain on the cusp of storming and norming, I realize that this conversation is sure to be one of many. Witnessing such encouraging changes ensue so quickly after, it speaks volumes in terms of where this team has the potential to go.

How to have an uncomfortable conversation

Part of why the talk was so successful was the way in which it was done. Each person left with a commitment and an action that would move them forward and not keep them brooding in the past. It was also extremely direct and this is one of the most important points to consider when having a difficult conversation.

Gone are the days of sandwich feedback. As author Susan Scott says in her book Fierce Conversations, the best way to have a productive conversation is to get straight to the point. She outlines seven key things to address within the first 60 seconds of any difficult talk:

  1. Name the issue
  2. Select a specific example that illustrates the behavior or situation you want to change
  3. Describe your emotions surrounding this issue
  4. Clarify what’s at stake
  5. Identify your contribution to the problem
  6. Indicate your wish to resolve it
  7. Invite them to respond and get input

By answering each point for ourselves ahead of time, it not only helps us structure the conversation but it allows us to gain clarity as to what we’re really trying to convey. And as I move toward the forming stage and beyond with my new crew, I look forward to continuing to tackle issues as openly and as directly as possible, no matter which side of the conversation I might happen to be on.

When’s the last uncomfortable conversation you had? Share your experience with us and tell us what made it easier for you to tackle the issue head on. 

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