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Unavoidable epic failures

Not sure if you’ve noticed this, but everybody seems to assume that people with great communication skills display a perfect control of the situation in every single conversation.

I don’t think that’s the case.

More than control, they develop awareness:

  • Awareness of frustration, so they can give themselves a break.

  • Awareness of when the other person is getting annoyed at what’s being said.

  • Awareness of wanting to say something and noticing that this is not the best moment.

  • Awareness of trying to communicate something and realising that the other person is engaged in a different narrative.

Awareness is the beginning of learning any skill, and without it you can’t improve how you communicate.

But we need more than awareness to change and create a new behaviour. Of course, you might be thinking, 'We need to learn the new skill!’

Correct, but hold on here.

Does a combination of awareness and skill knowledge automatically creates a new behaviour?

I doubt it.

You might know all the theory about managing difficult conversations, be aware of the dynamics of the conflict in the moment, and still be incapable of bringing empathy into the conversation.

That’s why improving communication skills can be tricky, because we focus primarily on learning the skills, assuming that learning is equivalent to change.

And that’s a huge mistake!

We need to focus on changing behaviours AND learning skills.

And the order here is important.

Because learning needs to be designed to create change.

When working in agile and fast-paced environments we don’t want people just to learn the ABC of psychological safety: we want them to start working on how they can create conditions of psychological safety in their teams so that people feel safe to talk.

There is a tension when we move from knowing the theory to starting to practice, and when it comes to managing conflict, psychological safety or difficult conversations, the tension is huge.

Going back to my previous example, when I’m aware that I’m in a conversation with competing narratives – for instance I want to give feedback about some work and the other person wants to complain about the performance of somebody else in the team – I have choices.

  • I can communicate that we’re engaged in different conversations and decide, more or less unilaterally, that right now the topic is feedback;

  • I can address the frustration first, give it some space and then focus entirely on feedback;

  • I can focus on the complaint, as I can see it becoming an open and destructive conflict.

What nobody tells you is that before you get better at managing difficult conversations you’re going to get it wrong many times.

Learning communication skills comes with unavoidable epic failures.

If you are trying to learn a new skill, here are some observations to create a generous space to establish a new behaviour;

  • Consider how long you need to establish the new behaviour. Most research talks about 66 days.

  • Find support during these 66 days to consolidate the new skill.

  • Create a space for questions and answers to hold the practice, experiment and move into consolidating the new skill.

  • Think about how you can integrate the new skill into your teamwork, processes, and organisation.

  • Think about how to scale this new skill in your organisation.


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