Initiating a tough conversation on a controversial topic is arguably a most difficult and draining responsibility. Most people, leaders and teammates alike, dread these discussions so they take the easy way out. They instead, as Rose Fass so graphically writes in her book, “hold a meaningless Chocolate Conversation.”
In a Chocolate Conversation, emphasis is on avoidance behavior and maintaining a general, non-divisive discussion instead of “Going There.” Granted there are times when avoiding conflict or controversy is the proper thing to do. But “Going There” must be done when a tough conversation about a controversial topic is required. For the record, I’m defining confrontation here as the act of facing something or someone that needs to be addressed head on—directly and proactively.
Without a constructive confrontation, the great ideas, the potential solutions, the gold nuggets of wisdom held in the heads of the people best able to meet the issue head-on and reduce or eliminate it remain unsaid as the meeting adjourns. With no one present willing to risk “Going There,” the group brings about “Death by Chocolate Conversation!” Death by avoiding, by talking around the real issue, by striving to not rock-the-boat, and by self-censorship of the very words that need to be spoken.
Why is this? People find confrontation to be emotionally distressing; or they are concerned about hurting others and disturbing their relationship with them; or they lack a good mental roadmap for working through a confrontation; or they fear repercussions from others for bringing to light the 800-pound gorilla lounging in the middle of the table.
My experience has taught me there are four good reasons for encouraging “fruitful friction” among teammates in mentioning, then slaying, the 800-pound gorilla.
1. Critical thinking is stimulated.
When an individual or a contingent challenges the direction of a group or takes exception to being bogged down in a Chocolate Conversation, the group is forced to reexamine its own beliefs in some detail and to reconsider previously ignored or skimmed over aspects of the issue.
2. Innovation and creativity is sparked.
When people are moved to confront each other over acceptable alternatives, this diversity can motivate the group members to work out new and creative alternatives that can be supported by everyone.
3. Group stagnation is minimized.
Contrary opinions and ideas brought out in the open in a constructively demanding environment increase the breadth and depth of each member’s understanding of the subject.
4. Healthy debate and discussion is energizing.
The excitement and energy that spring from working through the highlighted differences as an issue is confronted and can increase the motivation and participation of all group members to be part of the solution.
As Rose says in The Chocolate Conversation:
Be willing to ‘go there.’ Stay in the conversation with your people and your customers. Have the tough conversations . If you have authentic conversations with your customers and your employees, you have the foundation for transforming your business.
You can find him on LinkedIn.