Design the Relationship to Match the Conversation

By Josh Epperson

Wednesday, July 27th 2016

Does your relationship warrant the conversation you’re about to have?

If yes, don’t read any further, just go have the conversation. Chances are it won’t go perfectly, but a perfect conversation isn’t want matters – it’s the relationship between you that matters. Great relationships are capable of weathering the worst conversations. Or at the very least set you up for a ‘do-over’, which is often more critical when pursuing a desired outcome than getting it right the first time.

But what if you answered no to the above question? Or what if you aren’t sure?

In order to determine the depth and quality of a relationship required for a given conversation, you need be clear about what you want the conversation to accomplish. For example, imagine a conversation between a supervisor and direct report. The direct report wants to confront their supervisor on their frequent canceled one-on-one's and their passive aggressive communication style. I think we’d all agree that the direct report would be more effective and the conversation more productive if they have a stellar relationship with their supervisor. But what stellar looks like depends on the history between them and the extent to which the conversation will stretch the current state of the relationship.

We often underestimate the complexity of our conversations and overestimate the strength of our relationships. This sets up moments in which we attempt conversations that our relationships cannot bear. So what can we do to strengthen our relationships?

Care. The success of the conversation between these leaders is predicated on the extent to which they believe the other leader cares for and about them. The supervisor must believe that their direct report cares enough about the future success of the business and their leadership of it to give them the gift of difficult feedback. Similarly, the direct report must believe that, if acted upon, the feedback will positively impact their leader’s results and business outcome. In order for a difficult conversation to go well, there must be reciprocal care.

Credibility. Care apart from credibility is nothing more than warm-fuzzies – a good feeling lacking true value.  In a confrontational conversation, like the scenario above, credibility is determined not by the confronter, but by the receiver – in this case, the supervisor. Do you as the direct report have credibility with your supervisor on the topic? Do you have a track record of offering them credible feedback? Do they seek your input and counsel on difficult decisions? Have they ever asked for your feedback about their leadership? These are the types of questions you’d want to ask before you go knocking on their door.

Care and credibility between leaders can seem like such ‘soft’, undiscussable topics. However, if you as the direct report see a lack of either care or credibility between you, that is exactly what you should bring up. For example, in your next one-on-one, you may need to say, “It’s really hard to share difficult feedback with you because I don’t feel like you care about it.” But be advised, you better have tangible examples to follow up with (“Last quarter, on three different occasions, I brought to your attention anticipated difficulties in our upcoming product launch. It didn’t seem like you cared and I am not sure why. Best I see it, those challenges are still unaddressed”).

It may take a few conversations, but in this example, the direct report can guide the relationship to a place where it’s okay to discuss feelings of not being heard and better understand how to make their voice count in the future.

But what do you do when care, credibility, or any number of other relational requirements aren’t present, you don’t have time to build them, and you still need to have the conversation?

  1. First seek to understand how your history impacts (positively or negatively) the current requirements of your relationship.To what extent, and how, will the conversation stretch your relationship?

  2. Determine how quickly you can move your relationship from its current state to where it needs to be to have a successful conversation. Sometimes you’re two to three conversations away from the conversation you want to have.

  3. If you’re more than one conversation away, be clear on what those conversations are and what each of them needs to build in the relationship between you.

And if all of this feels too soft or you feel like those you are in relationship with are never going to offer care or grant credibility, remember…

…every conversation is an opportunity to strengthen your relationships.

  • Take the time to acknowledge how your working relationship is/is not where it needs to be. Be clear on what you hope for and from your working relationship. Work to align on the aspects that will make it more effective and productive.

  • Keep your conversations focused on the value you create together. Remind yourselves how you’re working together toward a common outcome. Let the past be the past; focus on what’s required for the future.

  • Learn first. As a leader, curiosity is one of your greatest assets, especially when it comes to strengthening your working relationships. Use your conversations to learn as much as you teach.

Effective conversations are a basic element of a leader’s daily success. The value those conversations seek to realize run the gamut from water cooler to board room. Make sure you have the relationships required to make each of them count.


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