There are two opposing forces in the workplace when it comes to difficult conversations. The first is a version of our individual will to survive, to do well, to get what we need. And the second is what we've all been socialised to do: get along, don't make waves, don't stick your head above the parapet.
Difficult Feelings Make for a Difficult Workplace
The result is that when people feel they're in a difficult place, they don't feel comfortable expressing what they're really feeling, and so you see people acting out: they're disengaged or sullen or depressed or anxious or passive aggressive. You might get absenteeism or presenteeism. One thing is for certain, you won't have people working to their full potential, which is a shame both for them as individuals and for your organisation.
The Role of Resistance
This,, essentially, is resistance: showing your discomfort or anger (or whichever feeling it might be) as best you can, but not directly. Resistance – whether it takes the form of being passive aggressive, argumentative, or sullenly unresponsive – is the route people take when they feel they can’t say what they really think, something that is quite common in the workplace.
Ultimately, resistance is harder to address and engage with than an honest conversation, so it's something we should really think about.
I encounter resistance all the time in training sessions.
Imparting information is just a small part of my role as a trainer. A much bigger part of the role is to facilitate an environment, to create a space for difficult feelings and to be able to sit with the uncomfortable feelings of others. It’s only by acknowledging these feelings that we can move on to learning.
I recently ran a session on consultation through a redundancy situation. From the moment I walked into the room, the feeling of resistance was thick in the air. I felt like I was bowing down under the weight of it. The desire to act into it by being snarky or angry or pushing back in some way was strong. Of course I knew it wasn’t about me personally – this was the first time I had met this group of people. I also knew, based on previous experience, that there was a good likelihood that I could bring the group around, but that it would take some time.
How Can We Improve the Situation?
As always in these situations, I try to take a big breath and stay calm. Being calm allows me to be curious and to listen genuinely. I am naturally curious and I do want to know what's behind people's upset. People usually respond to this well, and slowly or quickly, they'll start to express what they really feel. And then, after this period of reflection, we can move on to learning and action.
So my tips are:
1. Try to stay calm. Take a break if necessary (remember, it's not personal)
2. Be curious about people - if you're not curious, why are you there?
3. Listen genuinely for the sake of listening, not to prove a point or move things forward.