I hear this a lot. Often it’s something that’s said to avoid a difficult conversation, or an uncomfortable situation in the office. It’s a limiting belief that can mean inauthentic relationships are formed, and that progress on a project is halted.
A few weeks ago I used Emma Willis’ example of holding Roxanne Pallet to account as a “comfortable confrontation”. Emma used some of the techniques I talk about in this article.
For radio presenters “I don’t do confrontation” is the reason given for not holding guests or contributors to account. It’s understandable to feel that way, as you are often thankful for contributors and guests being on your show. Asking difficult questions feels unfair, out of character or ungrateful.
The reality is that difficult conversations are likely to happen every single day on air, or in the office. Here are some of the tips I give to help you through that unavoidable awkwardness, and to get the best from the guest.
1. Make sure you know what you want
Make sure you have a good understanding of what you want out of the conversation before you enter in to it. Set your intent. It might be to be kind, or to get the answers that your audience (or you) deserve. As a result, you will have to ask the question that plays devil’s advocate to get the answer you want.
When interviewing someone on the radio about a Cheese Festival the question: “So what are the reasons people like cheese?” Would get you so far. But “why are you celebrating cheese, it’s just a silly piece of dairy isn’t it?” Could get you a stronger, more interesting answer.
2. Check your language
If going at it directly like this is too uncomfortable, you can distance yourself in your language to take the emotion and the personal attack out of it.
Firstly – argue the idea, evidence or behaviour, not the person. The minute you go to personal language like “you’re an idiot for thinking what you think” you have lost the productivity of the conversation.
A therapist of mine suggested to me to use the word “I” in conflict, rather than “you”. In broadcasting I am constantly telling people to use the word “you” as a way to engage their listener. It’s the most powerful word you can use for this. But in the context of difficult conversations it can be a useful tool to use I: “What I am seeing is <example> behaviour which is implying to me…” rather than “You are a really difficult person”.
On the radio it works to use phrases like “Some people might say that this is a silly Festival for Cheese – is it?” or. “What do you say to someone who says that thinks this Festival is a silly idea?”
3. Agreeing is Partial (not Impartial)
I recently spent a day coaching new radio presenters, practicing their interview technique. Their brief was to remain impartial. Presenter after presenter interviewed their contributor consistently grateful, constantly agreeing with them and guess what – it was dull. That may be unfair, but I didn’t really learn anything from the interviews. It is a common mistake to think that impartiality sits in agreeing. It’s actually the opposite.
In the on air interview, or if you are hosting a panel, it is your job to make sure you are covering the information from all angles. Using the language above (e.g. “Some people might say…”) you can put forward an opinion that may not be yours, without having to attach yourself to it. This can make the feeling of confrontation a little easier.
My husband really enjoys a debate. One time we agreed that we would go out on a family day out at 11am. At about 10.30 he and his aunt got locked into a debate about politics of some sort. We all sat there till 1pm till they came to their conclusion.
I mean, he REALLY loves a debate.
I used to hate it. My skin would crawl. I’d feel shame and discomfort. I would want to hide. And let’s be honest, no one really wants to sit around for 2 hours while you’re waiting for a heated discussion to be finished!
But then I wondered what would happen if I leaned in to it. He loves it, I would be gutted if he dismissed one of the things I love. So I decided to try joining in, rather than shutting it down, and use it as a means of practice. For some people they like the opportunity to intellectually spar, and it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about learning.
Even so, it’s so hard not to get emotional, or take it personally! But with him, I am in a safe space. He knows me, I can get my words wrong, I can correct myself, I can practice what it is to be devil’s advocate, to call things out I don’t agree with. The outcome is I am getting better at forming my words and questions in what can be an emotional state & I am better at speaking up in other situations too. And, I think my husband and I have actually found a place to connect a little more.
So find someone to practice with.
I have had to fire people, I have had to deal with getting people to realise they are making mistakes, and I have had to deal with conversations about my own work and behaviour that have been really tough. In every situation the one piece of advice that has helped is this: it’s supposed to feel uncomfortable.
For years I thought there was “a way” to make the uncomfortable, comfortable. There are ways to make things less uncomfortable, but some conversations are always going to be difficult.
Once I embraced the discomfort, I was able to come to terms with understanding that conflict can be a route to growth, that it was something to practice and commit to getting to a more interesting place.