Tough Conversations: What if You Assume the Other Person Is… Resilient?

Last Updated: May 21, 2021 | Leadership, Office Communication

By Lilian Abrams, Ph.D., MBA, MCC, ESIA. Sometimes, my coaching work weeks appear to have a theme. This week, the theme is: “When you anticipate having a difficult conversation, what would happen if you assumed that the other person was resilient?”

Right now I have at least 4 clients (and 1 friend) who are dealing with a conflict where they are having a hard time speaking up on their own behalf. I’ll describe just one of these, who I’ll call Dierdre. 

Dierdre is the new President of a relatively small business, recently acquired by her multinational organization, X. She herself came up through Sales and Marketing in X. She has taken increasingly more senior positions, first domestically and then internationally, until now reaching this top role. In particular, her new situation requires a turnaround, and has a culture that up until now has been authoritarian and unhappy.  

Today, Dierdre was describing how much she enjoys collaborating with others, listening to their different viewpoints and involving them in her decision-making. While normally a good leadership practice, here I began to wonder if this was going to be a strength overused for her in her new role. Specifically, I wondered how it will work for her when it comes to making the normal types of hard decisions that the most senior leader in an organization has to make.

As a new top leader, Dierdre will need to quickly assess her talent in light of her new strategy and goals, and will no doubt find that some of her people are lacking. She knows that at least a few of her current staff won’t like or won’t be able to adapt to her new cultural and operational changes. They may need “a new seat on her bus” (e.g., moved to a new role where they can be more effective) — or, if this can’t happen, they may even need to be moved to a new bus (e.g., be let go).  

As Dierdre and I discussed this, she confirmed that this was exactly her biggest fear. She admitted to being a bit scared and nervous when she imagined having to make these tough choices and have conversations with others about the value they were, or were not, adding. Given the organization’s needed new direction, she would also have to follow up on these uncomfortable conversations with uncomfortable actions, to match.

Having surfaced these fears, I asked her: “What do you think would happen if you simply assumed that the person you were talking to…was resilient?  What if they could take it, and adapt? Sure, they may not like it at first, but also, they are adults, who have no doubt dealt with news they haven’t liked before in their lives (because who hasn’t?). And what if this change even ultimately may lead to something better for them, down the road, either within your company or elsewhere?  In short, what would happen, if you assume that they are resilient?”

A light-bulb clicked on for Dierdre. I immediately felt her energy shift. All of a sudden, she realized that she not only didn’t control others’ reactions, but she also wasn’t responsible for them — they were. By assuming that each person is both responsible for their own resiliency and may well BE resilient, Dierdre realized that actually, they might be an equal partner in the conversation and consequences, and might even manage themselves well through it. This possibility relieved Dierdre immensely, and ideally will free her to have the tough conversations she needs to, as well as hopefully be wildly successful in her new role. For more about resilience, read Arden Coaching’s blog, “Resilience is Imperative.”

For more about dealing with navigating difficult conversations, resilience, and the benefits of executive coaching, schedule a consultation with Lilian.

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