How to Continue Difficult Conversations When You’ve Hit a Roadblock

If you’re preparing to talk to your team about succession, our Difficult Conversations and Succession post offers some great strategies to get you started. In that post, we talk about the importance of preparing for one-on-one sessions by setting expectations and leveraging mindful communication. While each of these components can help to set the process up for success, they do not guarantee that your conversations will run smoothly.

Leaders who regularly engage in development conversations will know that sometimes you need to deliver feedback that may come as a surprise or can be difficult to hear. Taking some time to anticipate how others may react to your feedback can help you to better manage these situations when they arise.

When individuals become defensive or resistant to feedback it is often because of one of three triggers[i]:

1. Truth

When people become defensive as the result of a truth trigger they tend to question the accuracy of feedback they are receiving. Common reactions may be, that’s wrong, that’s not helpful, or that’s not me. Usually this occurs when they feel the substance of the feedback is untrue or unhelpful. Sometimes, this may point to a personal blind spot they have, as they may not recognize how their behavior is being perceived.

2. Relationship

A relationship trigger occurs when the recipient’s interpretation of the feedback is obscured by the person delivering it. The focus will quickly shift from what is being said to who is saying it. Relationship triggers can occur when the recipient of the feedback feels the person delivering it lacks relevant knowledge or experience (e.g., what does he know about my department), there is some sort of perceived imbalance (e.g., how can she treat me this way after all I’ve done for her), or the existing relationship is strained (e.g., he’s the problem, not me).

3. Identity

Identity triggers can be some of the most challenging to manage. They are likely to occur when the nature of the feedback challenges the recipient’s sense of self. For example, if someone believes they are exceeding expectations in their job suddenly receives feedback that their performance is not quite where it needs to be for further advancement, they may begin to question their beliefs about who they are, professionally (e.g., I’m good at what I do – or am I?).

When you encounter one of these triggers, it is often because the recipient perceives the conversation to be threatening in some way. It may threaten their sense of:

  • Security (their place in the organization)
  • Belonging (to the team)
  • Acceptance (by you, the team, or the organization)
  • Recognition (highlighting mistakes rather than successes)
  • Autonomy (feeling like they shouldn’t need help)

Having an understanding of how someone is triggered and why may allow you to offer reassurances that deescalate the situation. A good starting point is to offer appreciation and recognition at the beginning of the conversation before diving into the areas where you’d like to see improvements. Acknowledging what they do well and how they’ve contributed to the success of your team will show that you value their work. When delivering difficult news, clarify your comments with specific examples to enhance understanding. Focus on objective descriptions of the situation rather than emotional reactions to it and give them the opportunity to ask questions.

Overcoming Resistance

If you notice truth, relationship, or identity resistance has been triggered, take a step back and reset the conversation. Reinforce that the purpose of the discussion is to encourage their development, and ask what you can do to support them with this process. When you experience defensiveness, the focus of the conversation should shift to:

  • Understanding why there is resistance
  • Conveying empathy and compassion for them
  • Encouraging them to talk about making changes
  • Developing a plan to continue the conversation

“People almost never change without first feeling understood.” [ii] – Douglas Stone

If you try to push through resistance without tackling it head on, you’ll have a hard time getting your message across. Before you can have a productive conversation, it is important to acknowledge what’s happening, demonstrate an interest in understanding why, and work together to develop a solution. It may take longer than you initially hoped, but putting in the effort early will help to facilitate future development conversations.


How SIGMA Can Help

At SIGMA, we want to help your company effectively plan for succession. For more information on our Succession Planning solutions, contact us and learn more about how we can help your organization develop your next generation of talent.

[i] Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

[ii] Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (1999). Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. New York, NY: Penguin Group.