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Wisdom from the Trenches: Difficult Conversations

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Difficult Conversations

I log into email and my heart sinks. At the inbox’s top are eight words that send me into a spiral of self-doubt:

“I’d like to book a meeting with you.”

There is no context and no details. I immediately think about last night’s jazz class—did I say or do something that could have ruffled feathers? Nothing. I review last week’s emails looking for a response where I could have used a better tone, or communicated more clearly. Zip. Desperate for a clue, I jump on my phone and scroll social media for something—anything—that might have gone awry.

I break into a full cold sweat. I have no idea what the problem is or what solutions I’m looking for. Or is it even a problem? What I do know is that I will not be getting a good night’s sleep tonight.

This used to be my recurring nightmare. I was terrified of surprise meetings and any confrontation over class placements, fee increases, performance reviews, or behavior concerns. The list of uncomfortable and seemingly impossible conversations was long, and at times it was all far more than my inner people-pleaser could bear.

But with preparation, perspective, and practice, I’ve calmed my fears and developed an appreciation for difficult conversations and the growth that comes from them.

Preparation

While there is never a good time for difficult conversations, there are steps you can take to set yourself up for greater success.

First, make sure you understand the real concern. Start by listening. Next, ask questions until you uncover the real issue at hand. If you are clear about what needs to be solved you can determine an appropriate response, brainstorm solutions, and focus the conversation.

After you are confident you’ve learned the main topic that needs to be addressed, create time and space on your calendar for a face-to-face meeting. Schedule conversations for times when you can be mentally and emotionally ready. Personally, I’m not at my best at 10pm after my last class or at noon when I am getting ready to drop off my toddler at preschool. Choose a time that works for you.

If a parent or student approaches out of the blue with a concern or complaint, try: “I can tell that this is really important to you. I want to make sure I give this the time and attention it deserves so I’m going to connect with you tomorrow. We will set up a time to meet and resolve this.”

Perspective

It took a whole lot of listening to other people’s experiences, self-reflection, professional development, and the life change of becoming a mom to understand that complaints from clients are not really about me. Once I figured that out, everything shifted.

That mom complaining about the fall schedule? She’s actually overwhelmed by trying to drive three children to different schools and activities while dad works out of town. 

That student who’s frustrated because she didn’t get to join the class with her best friend? She gets teased at school and dance is the only place where she feels like she fits in and has a friend.

There are hundreds of variables that shape your perspective and those of others. When preparing for a difficult conversation, I rely on powerful phrases that help me widen my perspective and prepare me to approach conversations with empathy. My short list of favorite phrases:

  • You don’t know what you don’t know, until you know it. 
  • Everyone wants to be seen, heard, and understood.
  • Clear is kind, and kind is kinder.

Practice

The truth is there’s no getting away from difficult conversations–not in the dance studio and not in life. I don’t actively seek difficult conversations, but when they arise I choose to see them as an opportunity to practice my skills and grow my confidence. Just like with dance technique, practice makes progress.

Just last week it showed up again: “I’d like to book a meeting with you.”

For a moment, I’m convinced the 16-year-old student writing the email has decided to drop dance next year. I’m crushed—but then I remember that it’s probably not even about me. I respond: “Hi! Just making sure I can give you the time and attention you deserve. Can you please give me more information?”

To my surprise this student wants to share praise from her grandfather, and it “should only take five minutes!” I will remember those five minutes for a lifetime. 

Prepare. Expand your perspective. Consider difficult conversations as practice. Be brave, and soon the only thing you’ll think after seeing those eight words is these three: “I got this.” 

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