Friday, November 6, 2009

dealing with difficult moments

Leaders will have their share of difficult moments. In my area as Dean of a College, I have difficult moment with students, faculty, administrators, alumni, parents, and even colleagues. The good news is these difficult moments are often few and far between. The bad news is that they are REALLY difficult. What makes them difficult is that they always involve people, and people are hard to deal with. Why is that?

  • People are like you and me - when we look into their faces or hear their voices, we are seeing or hearing ourselves.

  • We want people to like us - and when we face difficult moments with them, we are probably saying things they do not like to hear...which means they may not like us.

  • Difficult moments mostly involve people when they are at their most vulnerable state, and the last thing we want to do is hurt people even more.

  • What we perceive as a problem may not look like a problem to the people with whom we are dealing, so we start off on different pages. Having to explain the problem to someone else is often the hardest part of starting the difficult conversation.

  • For me, there is always a gnawing voice in the back of my head saying that I might be wrong...and I begin second guessing myself.

While difficult moments are difficult, part of the role of a leader is to confront problems and deal with those difficult moments. If the leader shirks that responsibility, then they are not fulfilling their role as leader. So what might be some ways to deal with difficult moments and perhaps make them slightly less difficult?

  • Deal with them right away - the longer one lets the issue go, the harder it is to confront the individual with the problem

  • Know exactly what you are going to say in the moment - take some time to think through and write out what you want to say to the person before you begin the conversation

  • Approach the situation with the understanding that you MIGHT be wrong - that thought pattern can remove any attitude of superiority and put the two of you on more equal footing

  • In the conversation, provide a way and time for the other person to admit their role in the problem and make restiution - if you do all of the talking, it will put the other person in an even more defensive mode

  • Realize that you are doing your job, and no one else can do it for you - this is why you were put in the leadership role, so do it and do it well. You may or may not win friends in the process, but what you are doing is strengthening and building the organization and its mission

  • Don't dwell on the issue - state what the problem is, ask a few questions, note the consequences if warranted, and stop. If the person responds, there is then room for dialogue with the two of you. If not, then the conversation is over. Be sure to check for understanding before the conversation is finished.

  • Follow up - an email or note after the difficult moment helps to make sure that both parties understand what happened and leaves a paper trail.

  • Move on - a difficult moment is just that...A MOMENT. Once it is over, it is over, and both parties can move on with their work. Don't take it personally, and don't hold a grudge. On the other hand, there is no need to go out of your way to "fix" the relationship or issue right away. Let it take care of itself over time.

And finally, remember not to make a mountain out of a molehill. Much of what we might perceive as a difficult moment may be nothing more than a blip on the screen for the other person. What keeps me awake at night may not keep someone else awake at night, and I have to accept that fact. Yet another hazard of leadership.

A final note - while I never enjoy the difficult moments, I always feel a sense of accomplishment when I have dealt with the issues and the people. Perhaps that has to do with the realization that I am actually doing my job...and doing those things that only leaders can do. And that's a good thing.

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