Awkward Conversations

Easter Bunny

By Stefan Schweihofer

I recently read a post someone sent me on LinkedIn about Awkward Conversations.

The most interesting thing about this particular post was that it wasn’t about how to avoid or deal with awkward conversations (which is mostly what you will find if you google “Awkward Conversations). This particular post was about how we often miss the opportunities in awkward conversations.

Give 3 opportunities

As part of my regular process of feedback and keeping myself accountable to those who report to me I have attempted to instigate a monthly process of rounding.  I took this concept from the Studer Group who are one of the leading international healthcare organisation reform and coaching groups.

Simply put you put in place a structured approach to your regular conversations with your line reports.  Studer recommend 6 questions that can help to get to the heart of performance.  This is all based on the premise of performance discussions being more about the manager receiving feedback on their performance than the employee.  Yes.  I know that may sound a bit novel to some folks but believe me this is what most performance meetings are meant to be about.  Managers have far more power to remove barriers to performance for employees than vice versa.

Anyway the whole set up of the rounding process recognizes that this may actually be novel process for the person you are rounding on and that asking them for feedback about the work unit’s performance may have not happened very much in the past.  In my experience the first couple of roundings are polite affairs (aka not awkward) but don’t lead to any meaningful gems of information for you to work upon.

Its not until about the 3rd time you go through the process and your roundee is now familiar with the questions and gets the idea that you are committed that you start to get useful pieces of feedback from the process.  This is all obviously predicated on establishing an environment of psychological safety*.

*Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected. It is also the most studied enabling condition in group dynamics and team learning research.

The standard Studer question set include questions like what’s been working well this week, what’s not been working so well, who should be acknowledged for good performance and do you have the tools to do your job?

I’ve since gone further than those questions and really tried to make the conversation awkward by asking for feedback on my own personal performance, i.e. tell me one thing I do well, tell me one thing I could improve on.  Believe me these are even harder questions for a direct report to answer than for the Manager to ask but if put across in a genuine desire for feedback can lead to invaluable insights.

These are even harder questions for a direct report to answer than for the Manager to ask but if put across in a genuine desire for feedback can lead to invaluable insights.

We are now teaching more conflict resolution in medicine and that’s definitely appropriate.  But that’s only one type of “difficult conversation” that we need to be having with each other.

It occurs to me that there is an opportunity for many trainees to engage and be engaged in awkward conversations with their supervisors within the confines of the relatively psychological safe space of supervision, particularly individual supervision.

This probably begins with the supervisor role modelling  by dogmatically asking for both positive and negative feedback until he or she gets some “areas for improvement”.  Thereafter we can hopefully encourage our trainees to be a bit more open about discussing their failings (perceived or real) and perhaps also be open to constructive criticism from us as supervisors.

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