Talking about touchy subjects

Talking about touchy subjects

Dec 01, 2004

W. Bradford Swift, DVM
Growing up in the South, I quickly learned that there were certain subjects one simply should not talk about in mixed company—religion, politics, and money. There are similar touchy topics in business, such as pay raises and compensation plans, staff disagreements, a desire to make important changes in the practice, and disagreement about management styles. Although we'd like to avoid these topics, they need to be discussed.

My first business coach gave me this insight: It's what we don't say—or feel we can't say—that ends up running the show in a business. Here's how to better manage such challenging conversations.

  • Acknowledge your discomfort and move beyond it. Most of us want to avoid any hint of confrontation. Unfortunately, the more we avoid a problem, the more difficult it becomes to address the issue. Before we know it, we're trapped in a vicious circle of avoidance. And in the worst cases, the ill feelings build up until someone explodes.

One solution: Schedule regular time to clear the air, either in staff meetings or one on one. Such preventive medicine can go a long way toward heading off interpersonal challenges before they grow into major problems.

  • Build a powerful context for the conversation. Set the stage before you raise the curtain on your problem. For example, you might build context for scheduling time to air grievances like this: "As we all know, people disagree from time to time in a busy practice. And if these issues aren't addressed and resolved, they can build up and poison our environment. For this reason, I'm suggesting we take a little time during each staff meeting to clear the air. Depending on the issues that arise, we could resolve them on the spot or set a time for those involved to meet."

If you want to set up a discussion with the practice owner, your conversation might go like this: "As you know, Dr. Malcolm, I've worked here for three years, and I've really enjoyed the experience. Now I feel it's time for us to schedule some one-on-one time to talk about my future here. I confess, a few of the topics are a bit touchy, which is why I've put off asking for this meeting. At the same time, I'm sure together we'll find ideas that will work for both of us. When would you be available to meet?"
  • Commit to win-win outcomes. Touchy conversations go better when you come to the table in the spirit of cooperation and collaboration, rather than prepared to push your own agenda. You want to propose solutions that will work for everyone concerned. Yes, this requires you to walk a mile in the other person's shoes and to look at the situation from his or her perspective as well as your own.

For example, if you're an associate who feels it's time to have the "money conversation," start by making a list of five or 10 reasons it would benefit the practice and the practice owner to give you a raise. For example, your list might include sound ideas for generating additional funds. Perhaps you're prepared to offer additional services, take on more management responsibilities, or develop an additional specialty or profit center.

When you're entering any touchy conversation, you want to avoid introducing a "me vs. you" mindset. Instead, work to develop these collaboration and communication skills. Before you know it, you'll be a masterful craftsman when you approach even the touchiest conversations.

As the founder of the Life on Purpose Institute, Dr. W. Bradford Swift empowers people to live true to their life purpose through writing, public speaking, and coaching professionals to design businesses on purpose.