The Hard Thing About Hard Conversations
“Nothing can change until the unsaid is spoken.”– Keith Cunningham
This past weekend, I got to know the red harvester ant on personal terms. While cutting mesquite on my property, a few harvester ants fell down my shirt. I could feel one on my neck and one marching down my chest. I swatted the one on my neck. But before I could get the other one, she stung me just above my belly button.
To describe the sting, I’m enlisting the late Dr. Justin Schmidt. Schmidt created the Schmidt Sting Pain Index where he entertainingly describes the stings of all manner of insects. Harvester ants rate a 3 on his 4-point pain scale. Schmidt describes a harvester ant sting thusly: “Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a power drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.”
As bad as the sting felt, there was a moment where I knew I was about to be stung. That instant was somehow worse. This naturally got me thinking about the joys of leadership.
Schmidt managed to get stung by virtually every stinging insect there is and recorded the pain levels for science. Anticipation of pain can often be worse than the real thing. “Pain truth comes in two flavors, imagined and realized,” Schmidt wrote. “With stings, our imagination is vivid and strong, even if the sting pain is not realized.” The same is true of hard conversations in business and life.
The first time I had to fire an employee, I was a mess. Our general counsel pulled me aside and gave me invaluable advice. “Here’s how you do it. The first thing you say is: The reason I called you in today is we have to part ways. Just get the hard part over and the rest of the conversation becomes about why.” Genius. Thank you, Julie.
My whole life I’d pretty much done the opposite. I can remember breaking up with a girlfriend in college. I spent most of the conversation trying to let her know how much I liked her and what a good person she was. She probably thought I was going to get on one knee and propose before I told her I wanted to break up.
If you’ve been avoiding a hard conversation, the best time to deal with it is now. Putting it off prolongs the unpleasantness for everyone. And getting it done brings sweet relief, moves you closer to your goals, and bolsters your confidence to do hard things.
One question to ponder in your thinking time: What have I been avoiding that could be improved with a conversation today?
Make an Impact!