Dangerous Conversations: Coaching for Exceptional Performance

How often do you engage in the kind of conversation that stimulates others to change their performance? First, reflect on the following: How many conversations do you have during an average day? 30, 50, 100? How many of these simply function as social lubricants, helping you slide through the day without having to address the real and important issues you face? How many of these conversations really matter?

Now, reflect on the significant conversations you had over the last week. Consider the following: at the end of the conversation did you feel complete? Did you say everything that needed to be said? Did you feel good about the interaction? If so, notice why. If not, consider what was missing. Notice if there was something else you wish you had said or done. Did you feel that you held back in the conversation? Did you find yourself later having the conversation you wish you had had with another co-worker, friend or perhaps your spouse? Maybe you just have the conversation with yourself. If so, you are not alone. These are very typical reactions when we avoid the important conversation.

Leaders at all organizational levels are being asked to be more coach-like with their team members, colleagues, and even their customers. Unfortunately, many who lead organizations find themselves ill-equipped to provide such coaching. It’s not that we lack the requisite interpersonal and leadership competencies, but that coaching requires more. Coaching challenges us to engage in a different kind of conversation; one that confronts real topics of performance discrepancies, aspirations, values, disappointments, and passions –topics that are often uncertain, uncomfortable and emotionally charged.

We call these Dangerous Conversations. Not dangerous because someone will be hurt (quite the contrary), but dangerous because they always explore new, uncharted territory with all the accompanying risks that range from defensiveness to vulnerability, from anger to euphoria.

Coaching requires us to engage in the Dangerous Conversation. It is dangerous because it confronts questions that need to be asked: “Are you doing your very best work right now?”, “How are you getting in your own way?” and “What would happen if you really took your foot off the brake?” It is dangerous because it raises issues that are uncomfortable for even the most experienced managers: “You are better than this”, “This sounds like an old, tired story” and “I think you are afraid to try.”

Walk Away Empty When we engage in a dangerous conversation we walk away empty; everything that needed to said was said directly and honestly to the person who needed to hear it. We know immediately when we have done this because we feel a release. The burden we carried is transformed into a wonderful gift for another. Even if the message is very difficult for the other person to hear, if it is delivered with the other person interests at heart, we can take comfort in knowing our work is done. We did not hold back in our communication; we respected the other person enough to tell him the truth. We cared enough about his success to take the risk and to be uncomfortable for his benefit.

We also know immediately when we haven’t given everything to a conversation. We held back, not wanting to hurt, challenge or even affirm the other person, arrogantly believing that our words would be too much for him to handle. We lacked the courage to share our unvarnished perspective. As a result, we leave the interaction feeling unsettled, still filled with our real concerns and all the thoughts we censored, left to ruminate on them indefinitely. Sometimes we even seek out a third party with whom to finally speak our truth; the conversation that we didn’t have the courage to share more directly. Communication experts call this process “triangulation,” but to most of us, it is simply gossip.

Are you a Leader Coach? Are you known to be able to have the Dangerous Conversation? Would others call you a coach?

Try This: Think of someone you have complained about recently. Also, think about someone whom you believe is very talented but underachieving. Then ask yourself, “What is the dangerous conversation I need to have with these people?” Make a promise to have those conversations today.

After the conversation, notice how you feel. Do you feel empty? Did you say everything you needed to say to the person at that time? If you felt you held back, notice what you held back and why. Develop the habit of having Dangerous Conversations every day.