How to be compassionate in challenging conversations


Do you dread having tricky conversations with colleagues about performance, pay, restructuring or workplace conflict?

Throughout a career, every not-for-profit leader will face these conversations. But for many, they can be the most difficult parts of a job.

One of the most challenging conversations you might face as a not-for-profit professional is when a colleague or staff member says or does something challenging.

Aside from this behaviour itself, your internal response will heavily influence how you respond externally. It’s easy to make snap assumptions about the intent of such behaviour – namely, that the person exhibiting the behaviour has consciously and deliberately chosen to hurt or to pursue a hidden agenda. Most of the time, however, this isn’t the case. In fact, generally the person unconsciously slips into saying something without thinking it through, something everyone is guilty of doing at some point.

Interestingly, a person expressing such a behaviour is often speaking from some part of themselves that has been stirred up by something else altogether – a group-based event, an incident in the workplace, or even a domestic situation completely unrelated to work. Even if it’s not done wisely, they can often be expressing a sentiment that is shared by others, but not previously spoken aloud.

Whatever the reason, it’s important to learn to deal with challeging behaviour in a wise and timely manner – though that’s easier said than done!

No matter the words we use, a response from an underlying assumption of malicious intent will come across as judgmental and shaming, which in turn breeds an atmosphere of distrust and doubt.

By managing your own initial response and then intervening compassionately, you’re less likely to jeopardise the safety of the person exhibiting the challenging behaviour, as well as any others who may be affected. Ultimately, compassion is about being able to see oneself in the other, to connect with them, and to feel for the situation they’re in. As Arny Mindell puts it in his book The Deep Democracy of Open Forums, “you today, me tomorrow”.

So how to respond? It’s less about the words and more about where it’s coming from at an emotional level. If you’re feeling genuinely compassionate, you’ll have more luck finding the words to express that. That means you’ll be much more successful not only in resolving the challenging behaviour, but also in nurturing a more productive workplace.

The most important thing to focus on at that moment is your own self-awareness, though this is often very difficult. Ultimately, it’s imperative to learn to manage your emotional responses before beginning to intervene. Here are three brief tips on how to do this well:

  1. Buy a moment of time before you respond

It’s okay – in fact, it’s recommended! – to take a second to register your own emotional response to what’s been said or done. If possible, get a little bit of “mental distance” from the situation. This could help you regroup and gain a bit of clarity before you respond. The less emotion you have clouding your response, the better.

  1. Remind yourself that you could have easily said or done something similar

Think about a time when you yourself might have “put your foot in it” or otherwise confronted someone with a challenging situation. Everyone exhibits human responses to high-pressure situations – which means our responses are often flawed. Again, this can be offset by taking a bit of time to allow you to manage your own response and judgements.

  1. Physically ground and centre yourself

This can be effective in focusing your thoughts and calming your sympathetic nervous system – thereby allowing you to respond more rationally. Consciously focus on your feet on the floor, or gently touch your heart to ‘call up’ your compassionate “wise self”. You may find this act of mindfulness yields great results.

All of this has to take a couple of seconds, so it may require a bit of practice! Remember to be compassionate with yourself too as you practice and hone these skills.

Adapted from the original article ‘The Assumption of Malicious Intent’ by Glen Ochre.

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