Silence or Violence

November 30, 2020
# min read
Rob Long

When faced with difficult conversations, in business and in life, many choose either "silence" or "violence." Neither is a good way to go!

The silent approach is when we say nothing. Sure it bothers you that one of your subordinates is not working as hard as you want. But the thought of his or her negative reaction to your assessment causes to you say nothing. Maybe you want to be liked and/or are just uncomfortable with conflict. The problem is, the 'bother' you feel is not going to go away until you address it, and, certainly, the subordinate's work product is unlikely to improve without constructive feedback. And, if you haven't already noticed from experience, unaddressed feelings fester and eventually come to the surface in unhelpful ways.

That often leads to the violent part. No, not physical violence, but angry words that tear down rather than build up. Or plain old arguments that raise tensions rather than getting the desired results. It's been said, "Speak when you are angry and you'll make the best speech you'll ever regret." As communication tactics, silence or violence almost always lead to negative outcomes and the enlightened leader should avoid them at all costs.

When it comes to difficult conversations the challenge is not only being willing to engage in them, but to make them constructive - an experience that builds up rather than tears down. This takes skill and fortitude. The good news is that the skills are easy to acquire and the fortitude comes with experience.

A foundational principle to adopt is taking personal responsibility for how you feel. The hard truth is that no one can make you feel anything. Everything we feel is a result of some internal calculus we make, often at lightning speed. It is our feelings that most often muddle the communication waters. You can't start clearing the waters until you own your feelings. To own your feelings you must understand what and why you are feeling them. (This underscores the need to develop one's self-awareness, as discussed in my pieces on the Quality of Life Equation.) Armed with that understanding it is much easier to communicate with constructive clarity. And, the nice thing is, the same principle applies to the other party you are communicating with. They are responsible for how they feel. So even if you are providing difficult feedback, how they react is up to them, not you. Being freed of that perceptual burden makes it easier for the leader to have those difficult conversations. There is plenty more to learn, like avoiding blame language, and listening-to-hear-rather-than-respond, but taking personal responsibility for how you feel is the place to start.

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