The ability to communicate effectively is one of the most important leadership traits, and should be a key component of companies’ executive search and recruitment efforts. That being said, even executives who think they have achieved the perfect balance between listening and exercising the gift of the gab might feel a twinge of uncertainty when it comes to approaching difficult conversations.
In a slideshow for the Harvard Business Review based on the book “Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them” by Holly Weeks, Sarah Green drew attention to nine common mistakes that many of us make when engaging in complex, contentious or otherwise tricky conversations. The first four of these are as follows:
1) Succumbing to defensiveness
Adopting a combative mentality is a surefire way to turn a tense conversation into an outright hostile exchange.
“This allows the conversation to become a zero-sum game, with a winner and a loser,” wrote Green. “But the reality is, when we let conversations take on this tenor – especially at the office – everyone looks bad, and everyone loses.”
2) Oversimplifying issues in the name of efficiency
Business leaders are far from the only members of society guilty of oversimplifying problems. The practice of appointing a scapegoat is seen in everything from politics to personal lives, for the simple reason that it’s easier to boil down a problem to its most basic form – even if that means ignoring pieces of the puzzle that don’t fit.
“Because it’s daunting to try and tackle several issues at once, we may try to roll these problems up into a less-complex Über-Problem, but the existence of such a beast is often an illusion,” Green pointed out. “To avoid oversimplifying, remind yourself that if the issue weren’t complicated, it probably wouldn’t be so hard to talk about.”
When you imagine a disrespectful professional conversation, it probably involves one or more participants failing to treat the others with the appropriate respect. Although this kind of scenario can be a major obstacle to a productive dialogue, failure to respect oneself is just as pervasive of an issue.
“You need to respect the person you’re talking to, and you need to respect yourself,” advised Green. “Making sure that you respond in a way you can later be proud of will prevent you from being thrown off course if your counterpart is being openly hostile.”
4) Going to extremes
Our natural fight or flight instinct tends to come out when we’re in uncomfortable situations. In the boardroom, executives (hopefully) don’t literally engage in a physical fight or flee the room, but they may react by becoming overly aggressive or passive, which is often equally unproductive.
“Some of us react by confronting our counterpart more aggressively; others, by rushing to smooth things over,” noted Green. “We might even see-saw between both counterproductive poles. Instead, move to the middle: state what you really want.”
We’ll examine the final five common mistakes in part two.
About Caldwell Partners
Caldwell Partners is a leading international provider of executive search and has been for more than 40 years. As one of the world’s most trusted advisors in executive search, the firm has a sterling reputation built on successful searches for boards, chief and senior executives, and selected functional experts. With offices and partners across North America and in London, the firm takes pride in delivering an unmatched level of service and expertise to its clients.