You’re tense. You’ve been tense all morning, in fact. You can’t focus on anything. All you can think of is the really difficult person you’ve got to have a meeting with at 12.15. You know they’re going to be really evasive when you give them the feedback – even worse, they may well make a scene and the whole thing could descend into a nightmare.

It’s 12.15. You start the meeting. The other party is evasive, then starts to lose their temper. You tell them to calm down. They get more angry. The whole thing descends into a nightmare.

Welcome to leadership!

It’s a curious thing, but it’s only the people we label as “difficult” who give us difficulty. Well, yes, “go figure”. But this is a serious point; the fact is, there is no such thing as a difficult person. There are only people whose behaviour we find it difficult to deal with. Once you label a person as difficult, you will treat them as if they’re difficult, and they… well, if you’ve ever dipped into the extensive and frankly terrifying research literature on the power of the self fulfilling prophecy, you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about.

Because being a courageous communicator does not mean having the courage to go in guns blazing and reduce the other party to a quivering wreck. It actually means being self possessed and assertive enough to deal with the issue under discussion, while being sensitive to the fact that opposite you is a living, breathing, fuzzy bundle of needs and values. In other words, you need to bring both clarity and empathy to the discussion. And the courage comes in when you have to withstand the unpredictable reactions of your counterparty. The work of Kim Scott on “Radical Candor” is the latest thinking on this balance.

Let’s break it down. The first thing you need to do in most “difficult” meetings is give a clear simple message. It might be a piece of feedback the other person needs to hear, it might be a statement of what you want from a meeting. But it needs to be simple, without deviation, hesitation or general faffing around. “I’ve come to ask for a 5% increase in my budget” is the kind of thing. Why lead with this? Because they might say yes, especially if you say it like a person who always gets what they ask for.

They might say no, of course; or more likely, “Why?”. The recipient of the feedback may bat it away, or appear defensive. This is when you stop telling and start listening, and explore the other party’s position. And from here on in, you are courageous in your facilitation of the conversation. It’s a bit like being on a sailing boat trying to get to port when the wind is blowing in the opposite direction. You may have to travel away from your destination in the short term, while looking for an opportunity to turn.

Negotiators describe this process as being “tough on the issue, gentle on the person”. And as with many of the leadership themes we’re exploring, it requires not just courage but both adaptability – to work with whatever the counterparty brings up – and reliability – to keep focused on the outcome you are seeking.
This balance between assertiveness and empathy is at the heart of our approach to facilitation, and to leadership. Our Future Proof Leadership programme enables leaders to act as facilitators, drawing solutions from their teams instead of imposing them. Visit Future-Proof Leadership for more details.

Phil Lowe is a Holos Faculty Agent and the co-facilitator of Future-Proof Leadership, our dynamic programme that will take your leadership mindset, practice and toolkit to a whole new level. If you are interested in joining the next cohort that starts in October 2023, please contact Angela Dellar for more information.

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