In Praise of Soft and Hard: Conversations that really matter

Categories: Leadership Communication

For many years, I’ve owned a training company called Influencing Options. We spend time helping people actually have courageous conversations. Many companies purport to do this work suggesting that some conversations were “crucial” or “critical” or “confrontational.” One of my mentors, Bob Weyant, had worked with the Core Dimensions of trust—respect, empathy, specificity and genuineness—and he taught me how those core elements could transcend most situations, including culture, gender, expertise, education, etc. And, the behavior-based work of building trust and creating courageous conversations—aka heartfelt conversations that mattered—could significantly impact one’s working relationships, including those with each other, those you supervise or coach, and your customers or clients. In other words, everyone.

At first, I’d bristle when meeting potential clients who’d say knowingly, “oh . . . those are soft skills,” deciding upon discussion whether or not they thought they needed us and our work. Frankly, everyone needs this work. I don’t know one person who has 100% success in their conversations, especially those that matter, because people are messy. And people (and situations, like work) about which you care are even more messy. The only thing to do is to prepare yourself the best you can, practice with a chosen confidant, and go for it. I think it would be impossible to quantify (though perhaps someone has tried?) the actual cost of bad conversations and confrontations in the workplace, but suffice it to say, it’s inconvenient and annoying at the best and utterly devastating at the worst. I remember walking past a Seattle Times headline after the Washington Mutual demise stating “Internal communication problems — they knew” or something to that effect, and thinking, (perhaps too confidently) that I might’ve been able to help.

The truth about these soft skills is that they have the greatest potential to create the greatest impact, positive or negative. One might argue that decision-making—good or bad—has the same sort of potential. Many a good leader has made a poor decision to suffer the consequences, but I’d argue that if you’re willing to follow the breadcrumbs, the notion of the courageous conversation, or lack thereof, was somewhere in the mix. That leader made that decision in a vacuum, or with missing information, or despite others’ efforts to sway the trajectory.

We talk about this a lot, though. We talk a LOT about COMMUNICATION in organizations. In fact, in the past 12 years of my business, I’ve never had a leader, a team, an organization, a person omit “communication” from their list of concerns. Never. I expect it. And, of course, it’s at the center of what we do, and what we do is try to make things happen or change together, in collaboration, in co-creation and in interdependence. Every sports team will tell you a superstar will only get them so far—no bench strength, no championship. Or at least not for more than one year in a row. In other words, we do stuff together, and therefore, we need to be in conversation with each other, in relationship with each other.

How many times have I said, “Did you actually talk to ­­­­him/her/them about this?” or “When is the last time you had a conversation with her/them/him?” So simple, right? Who would pay a coach or consultant to help with that  question? But these soft skills, these human skills are like eating and bathing—super important if you’re thinking about being alive and around other people. So, why don’t we just do it? Why aren’t we better at it?

At the crux of these soft/hard conversations is the intersection of fear and desire—if we risk ourselves, it’s possible to fail and to succeed, and both are sometimes equally terrifying. The conversation is hard because something’s at stake, because we might be disappointed, or worse. But here’s the secret: you cannot save yourself or anyone else from heartbreak. You cannot avoid disappointment or failure precisely because we are human, we are learning, we are always in constant change. Can we mitigate risk? Of course. Can we prepare for emergencies or create contingency plans. Yes. Can we pay someone else to have our courageous conversations for us? Maybe.

Here’s an idea: try showing up as your soft-skilled, imperfect human self. Try creating an environment where robust vulnerability and compassion have a space at the table. If what you are doing is working now, even most of the time, then stick with it. But if not, and if those around you are either creating wreckage with their terrible conversations or avoiding all the hard ones, it’s worth a try.

Libby Wagner
Author: Libby Wagner

Libby makes her home in a lovely West Seattle neighborhood in a house with turquoise walls and an amazing view of the Puget sound and Olympic mountains. A former Air Force “brat”, she continues to bounce from one corner of the world to the other, working with Fortune 500 clients, hopeful artists and authors, and aspiring entrepreneurs. She has a Master’s in Fine Arts and Poetry from Eastern Washington University where she also began working in the Writers in the Prison program.