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Navigating Difficult Conversations With Dialogue

Picture yourself in a tense horror movie: Chances are that your heart is racing, your palms are sweating, and that your eyes are wide and darting around nervously.

Now, guess the setting of this terrifying scene: Are you in a haunted house, or your agency’s human resources (HR) office?

Sadly, difficult conversations can make either location equally terrifying for government employees. And, although these topics often address such uncomfortable topics as workplace performance, they’re an increasingly necessary evil in the professional world.

Thankfully, dialogue can make the difference between success and failure during these awkward chats. According to two professional development experts, dialogue is any productive conversation featuring reciprocity and mutual respect between both parties.

“A lot of folks, myself included, get very anxious about having a difficult conversation,” Lisa Romano-Arnold said during GovLoop’s online training Wednesday. “You’re dealing with humans and it’s not black and white. There’s a lot of gray area.”

Romano-Arnold is Excelsior College’s Regional Director, Government and Workforce Partnerships. Excelsior College is private online college in Albany, New York.

GovLoop conducted Wednesday’s training, meanwhile, on behalf of NextGen, its annual government training summit. NextGen aims at inspiring government innovation through training and leadership development, and this year’s editions takes place in Washington, D.C. on July 25-26, 2019.

According to Romano-Arnold, difficult conversations will always exist if one or more people in the conversation feel anxiety during it.

“We’re all coming from different walks of life and we need to work together,” she said. “We need to be able to communicate and adapt to each other’s styles.”

Romano-Arnold listed embarrassment, stress, timing, and uncertainty as some of the other anxieties which make conversations difficult. She added that the worst thing people can do with difficult conversations is avoid them.

“The longer you wait to have these conversations, things start to fester,” she said. “It becomes harder to have them down the line.”

Virginia Hill, meanwhile, is the Manager of the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Government Leadership. The Partnership for Public Service is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that strives for more effective public services for the American people.

Hill said that dialogue helps people set aside their disagreements and focus on the greater good for themselves and their organizations.

“Remember you’re playing the long game with your career,” said Hill, who is speaking at NextGen 2019. “It’s not just about this one conversation. It’s actually about the relationship you cultivate with the person over time.”

Hill said that many people avoid starting dialogues because they feel lack of safety due to conflict. Experiences that trigger conflicts, she added, include disrespect, failure and humiliation.

“When there’s a lack of safety, people to shut down or throw down,” she said. “Shutting down is when somebody withdraws. Throw downs are where people are compelling others to their point of view.”

Hill noted that mutual respect and mutual purpose are safety’s foundations. According to Hill, both traits ultimately help difficult conversations resolve faster and more productively.

“The platinum rule is to treat others the way they want to be treated,” she said. “A main part of this is recognizing that we’re not enemies and we’re not at cross purposes.”

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Profile Photo Blake Martin

I loved hearing from Ginny and Lisa, and I particularly appreciated Ginny’s acknowledgment of the relationships mattering more than a particular conversation in terms of your career; you really are playing the long game and it is so important to remember to not let one difficult conversation derail that!