Making Critical Conversations More Compassionate

by Janet Arnold-Grych

The hot workplace topic of “critical conversations” refers to leaders intervening early and honestly when an individual falls short of expectations or engages in behavior disruptive to the team. It sounds straightforward enough—a rational discussion of behavior and impact, followed by an agreed-upon action plan. It also sounds like this straightforward formula should hold for the critical conversations we have outside of work. The obvious shortfall is that regardless of where they occur, difficult discussions are often messy.

That’s why it’s not uncommon to choose the persistent nettling of tolerance over the blunt force anxiety of direct discussion. Perhaps it’s our fear that the encounter will result in an emotionally charged exchange or an outcome that’s worse than the current situation. Regardless, the simple intention to bring attention to a problematic behavior can evoke terror. Why should this be so difficult, and how might we reframe our thinking to engage in it more effectively?

When someone puts our shortcomings on the table, it’s easy to react viscerally with denial, indignation, or distress. Rational conversation suddenly becomes a lot less potent. Wrapping these still messy conversations in a compassionate rather than cool approach makes them larger, and offers the opportunity for greater openness and impact.

When we feel threatened, we shut down or lash out. When we feel valued and engaged, we’re more likely to listen. As Izzy Lenihan, certified life, career, and wellness coach, explains, “The best way to get anyone’s attention is to approach them from the heart: with compassion.”

A compassionate approach means fully inhabiting the conversation in a receptive and calm manner, with the intention of advancing that person’s higher good. This doesn’t mean issues get sugarcoated. In fact, it means we are more willing to stand in the mess because we care about that individual.

Yes, it’s still tough. I can think of a few encounters in which my compassionate intention wasn’t enough. As with many situations, the change begins with changing ourselves.

Here are a few tips to making critical conversations more effective and compassionate.

Ground yourself. Our ability to optimally communicate starts long before we ever step into a discussion. That’s because how we show up is helped or hindered by our general physical, mental, and emotional state. Aruni Nan Futuronsky, Kripalu Life Coach and Healthy Living Program Advisor, points to the four pillars of health (nutrition, sleep, exercise, and stress management) as pivotal in our overall well-being and how we interact with others. “The question is,” says Aruni, “what are you willing to consistently do to add strength to the container that you are?”

Be aware of your words, body language, and presence. Verbal and nonverbal cues are both powerful ways of conveying intent. Izzy suggests that we can set the stage for a more effective exchange by “identifying body language that is in alignment with one’s intentions prior to the meeting.” This can involve trying to identify any stress you are holding and softening it. The goal is to create a safe and open environment. “Judgment and a lack of presence are energies that are not easily concealed,” says Izzy. Remain aware of and connected to your breath, allowing it to release tension and keep you in the present moment.

Lead with compassion. As the initiator of the conversation, your role is to help the person hear your feedback and move to positive change. Such conversations should begin with compassion and gravity, not harshness. Aruni explains, “You want to invite receipt of the feedback to grow, to have ownership, to change. A stern approach usually doesn’t work; it doesn’t enroll the person in their own commitment. You want that person to understand what it might look like to do [the behavior] differently.” Mirroring or repeating back the individual’s response to your comments also shows that you’ve been listening and can aid in cultivating true dialogue.

Let go. Despite the best of intentions, preparation, and approach, anyone can react poorly to a difficult conversation and, as the initiator, a common knee-jerk reaction is to feel wounded or awkward ourselves. It’s important to remember that while we control how we show up, we do not control others’ reactions. Says Aruni, “As a manager, I’m not responsible for my employees’ feelings. It’s my job to be compassionate and truthful, to say, ‘This didn’t work and here’s why,’ but compassion doesn’t mean caving. It’s not about people pleasing. It is incumbent upon us to speak the truth.”

Compassionate, critical conversations offer both parties the opportunity for growth. Such conversations aren’t easy, but if we can speak authentically and with compassion, we can strengthen that muscle and help drive real change.

Janet Arnold-Grych is a yoga teacher and writer whose work has been published in Elephant Journal, Huffington Post, Third Coast Digest, and other outlets. She’s also a marketing manager for a Fortune 200 company.

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