All Articles Leadership Communication 3 signs a conversation needs to happen

3 signs a conversation needs to happen

Difficult conversations often aren't because people avoid them. Here's how to know when such a talk is needed.

5 min read




Productive conversations turn conflict into collaboration, reduce costly mistakes and create a culture of accountability.

However, productive conversations are often avoided because of a perceived difficulty in initiating the conversation. I’ve heard everything from, “I don’t want her to cry,” to “I’m afraid of blowing up,” to “It’s the company picnic this week;” to “I can’t afford to lose them.”

What makes a conversation difficult varies from person to person. The variables include the depth of the relationship, the power structures, the timing and experience. But what all avoidance patterns have in common are three things: Fear of the emotional experience, skill level and the unwillingness to do the emotional labor required.

The hidden element is awareness. Many of us are unaware that we even need to initiate a conversation. The situation always looks like the problem belongs to someone else, but until we as leaders take full responsibility, nothing will change.

When executives blame middle managers for not initiating conversations, the lingering question is this: Who is managing the managers? It always comes back to leadership, and it starts at the top.

When senior-level leaders avoid, they create a culture of avoidance. You can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge and you won’t acknowledge what you are unaware of. The signs that you need to initiate a difficult conversation is all around you if you know where to look. Here are three signs that indicate a conversation needs to happen.

A negative inner landscape

Your inner landscape is your thoughts, feelings and emotions. If you find yourself thinking bad thoughts about someone, it doesn’t mean your thoughts are true or factual. It means you are far over-due for a conversation. When you blame someone without talking to them first, it means you aren’t taking full responsibility for the situation. When you judge someone, it means you don’t fully understand, and when you resent someone it might mean you failed to set a boundary.

If you find yourself gossiping, running to a friend to dish on someone else, it means you are avoiding talking to the one person who could actually change the situation.

Understanding your inner landscape is about growing in emotional intelligence. If you aren’t paying attention to your inner landscape and thus your inner dialogue, you are not aware enough to initiate a productive conversation.

Unwanted business results

Your hot-headed tantrum-throwing partner isn’t just an emotional issue. There’s a business case happening before your very eyes. Besides irritating you and creating a toxic culture, you are losing employees. Or worse, you are keeping employees who aren’t engaged and aren’t speaking up. The result is loss due to turnover, or costly mistakes waiting to happen.

Your Queen Bee you think is such a star performer, but isn’t good at teamwork is not actually a star performer. The problem is that you don’t equate team performance with overall performance. There’s always a business case for cleaning up bad behavior, you just have to notice how to connect the dots. Chances are your avoidance or lack of awareness is costing you productivity, reputation, teamwork or speed.


Look for evidence that the behaviors you see in the workplace harmonize with the mission, vision and values expressed on the website. When it comes to bad behavior that needs to be addressed, the biggest excuse I see at all levels is “That’s just the way I am” or “That’s just the way it’s always been.”

It’s usually followed up with something relating to one of the dozens of personality assessments out there; “He’s a very high D on the Disc, therefore…, fill in the blank. Or, according to her Myers-Briggs, she’s an INFJ, therefore…”

Recently at an executive round-table I was asked this question: “What about the different management styles?” My answer was this: “I don’t look at styles in the beginning. I look at alignment to the mission, vision, and values.” The style doesn’t matter nearly as much as alignment.

Personality assessments can help you understand yourself, your colleagues, and your peers, or they can be used to avoid doing what is necessary to make the needed course-corrections.

High D on the Disc? Doesn’t mean it’s OK to throw fits if the values of the organization are trust, integrity and collaboration. Quick Start on the KOLBE? Doesn’t mean it’s OK to go rogue without getting agreement from your senior executives.

With that said, if the mission is to win at all costs and the top value is hustle, you will attract the right employees to play that game, as well.

From this understanding it’s not about right or wrong, black or white. It’s about making decisions in alignment and being able and willing to deal with the consequences as they come.


Continually avoiding the elephant in the room creates a culture of neglect and avoidance. Your conversations either drive results or drive drama. Productive conversations is a key to creating a drama-free culture that drives growth and reduces costly mistakes.



Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of “Stop Workplace Drama” (Wiley 2011), “No-Drama Leadership” (Bibliomotion 2015) and “7 Ways to Stop Drama in Your Healthcare Practice” (Greenbranch 2018). Download “The Bottom Line: How Executive Conversations Drive Results.” Connect with Chism via LinkedInFacebook and Twitter and at

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mails on leadership and career growth, among SmartBrief’s more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.