“Difficult” or “difference-making”?

03 May, 2024
“Difficult” or “difference-making”?
AUT Business School Dean, Professor Kate Kearins

“Honest” conversations. “Growth” conversations. “Conversations that matter”. However you describe them, these workplace interactions are often considered “difficult” – for the instigator and the recipient.

But all these monikers highlight the key driver of such interactions: to make a challenging situation better – for everyone.

In a recent editorial published in NZ Management magazine, AUT Pro Vice-Chancellor and Business School Dean, Professor Kate Kearins draws on her own experiences as well as robust evidence to explore, answer, and offer tips on the central question: How to help turn difficult conversations into difference-making dialogues?

Kate says there is a range of approaches to help ensure the foundation for such interaction rests on a “positive, solution-focused kōrero” that allows both parties to understand what might have led to the problematic behaviour or issue and find ways to take a different approach next time. Kate’s recommendations include:

  • Stay curious and open to hearing their perception of the situation, or why things may have occurred as they did. Combative conversations are rarely useful, writes Kate, who highlights the mantra, “People almost never change without feeling understood.”
  • Remain calm, slow the pace, and take time with people – and be aware of what the right length of time is. More than an hour is too long and can lead to repetition; if more time is needed, it is better to arrange a follow-up meeting.
  • Be factual, not emotional, in describing key observations or issues. While some preparation can be helpful –  eg, through an emailed agenda or agreed talking points – Kate contends such conversations often flow better without undue scripting or rehearsing. However, some points will likely need repeating to underscore their importance.
  • Follow up a challenging in-person kōrero with an email thanking the person for meeting and noting salient aspects, any agreed action points, and timelines for follow-up.

Kate concludes that when framed as “difference-making” rather than “difficult”, the act of addressing, discussing, and understanding workplace problems can bring a shared commitment to change that benefits the organisation and the individual.

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