I had an amazing coaching call with a professional who was deeply frustrated at work. She’d screwed up the courage to have a difficult conversation with her boss, and it had gone well. She was shocked, but relieved and let her guard down thinking there could now be real change.
It didn’t happen. Her boss’s behaviour reflected what they’d discusses that week, and then things went back to the way they were. She felt betrayed. It had taken a lot of courage and emotional energy to have that conversation, and she really thought they’d come to an understanding.
She was trying to figure out what went wrong, and where to go from here.
Many professionals have this experience at work (maybe you have too). You reach your limit at work, you do the “adult” thing and have a difficult conversation with someone (your boss, or your employee, or a peer). Things look good, only to start sliding back to where they were. There is a lot of emphasis on strong communication skills (including navigating difficult conversations) in the workplace today, but one of the things that isn’t clear is why (once you’ve done that) these crucial messages don’t stick.
Whether it’s helping your employee to understand what’s expected of their work, or trying to get a peer to stop undermining you in meetings, these are the kinds of conversations that have an emotional factor to them, for you and the person with whom you’re speaking. It takes a lot to push most of us to a point where we’ll actually say something; the effort it takes AND its importance makes you think it’s sorted out. But important conversations are never a “one and done”.
In the case of my client, it was a conversation to get her boss to stop “dumping” critical work on her at the last minute. Often, she would get a casual e-mail from her boss letting her know a key piece of work needed to be completed by the next day – work my client knew would take hours to do (which wasn’t possible before the deadline). Work that her boss had known about days or weeks before, but failed to pass on to her until the “11th hour”. It meant she had to work ridiculous hours, or just outright failed to meet key deadlines (through no fault of her own). My client had reached her breaking point. She wanted a plan.
We talked about how that first conversation with her boss supported an understanding, recognizing the value of having had that first conversation. But there then needed to be on-going dialog, repeating the message, to get the message to stick. In the case of my client, we discussed how she could reference the commitments they’d each made in that first conversation to then have further conversations when that commitment wasn’t reflected by action. My client and I worked together to ensure she had the words, and the courage, to continually repeat what she needed to say, communicating with her boss to highlight the many different ways that need came about at work. It took a few weeks (and much patience). In the end they decided a new workflow was needed, so that her boss (who was good at many things, but didn’t really understand the time implications of some of the work requests from other parts of the organization) wasn’t a bottleneck.
Now my client had lasting change. And it didn’t negatively impact her relationship with her boss (or her career). In fact, her boss was even happier with her work than before because all those conversations lead to making the boss’s life easier too. Along the way my client was worried she couldn’t keep going back with the same message, but as it turns out, that was never a problem.
Respectful repetition is the key. While it may feel like you’re a saying the same thing over and over again, the people you’re communicating with need it and may experience your message not as repetitive, but an ongoing dialogue. It can be hard to see why things can’t just be sorted out with one clear conversation, especially when these types of conversations feel exhausting to have. But the reality is you need to repeat yourself, to remind, re-commit and re-confirm mutual understanding. As organizational psychologist, speaker and author Adam Grant says “Good communication requires repetition… When you’re tired of your message it’s just starting to land”.
Carleen has provided me with an excellent sounding board, practical tools tailored to my learning style and has helped me in working towards my personal development objectives as a leader in an organization facing change."