Lean into the flinch

Do you have to have difficult conversations sometimes? Perhaps with friends or family, perhaps with coworkers, perhaps with subordinates?

I will be speaking next week to a gathering of executives, managers, and business owners who are members of Executive Women International about difficult communication situations. Whatever else we’ll talk about, a key skill here is the ability and willingness to lean into discomfort rather than avoid it.

Julien Smith’s book The Flinch goes into this idea in depth. In brief: we have to get comfortable being uncomfortable.

That has a huge impact, whether you are speaking from the platform or having one of those difficult one-on-one face-to-face conversations. It reminds me of my late mother’s approach to medical challenges. When she had an odd pain, or something unusual on her skin, or some other symptom, she tended to say, “Oh, it’s nothing.” Eventually, she told me she would rather not know what it was than to go to the doctor and possibly find out she had cancer or something else major.

Obviously, that could lead to a relatively small problem mushrooming into a huge problem! But it’s a very human feeling. You’ll probably agree that you sometimes dodge confronting potentially difficult situations on the theory that if you ignore it, it might go away.

I once had a student who always negotiated for the last speaking slot in a a speech round. She told me she figured that you never know, Jesus might come again before the end of the speech round, and she wouldn’t want to go into eternity having given a speech that would make no difference to a final grade.

(I should perhaps be grateful the current semester ends before Dec. 21, 2012, but that’s another story.)

Flinchability, for the win!

Smith says to train for The Flinch (I would call it developing flinchability) by doing things like willfully stepping into a cold shower.

Toastmasters can help speakers with this, especially through such activities as Table Topics (impromptu speaking, for those unfamiliar with Toastmasters).

I observed this just today. One class of students had dreaded impromptu speaking, but at the end of today’s impromptu speeches said, “Let’s do that again! That was fun!” Another class getting the exact same questions over and over said some version of “I don’t know what to say about that. I can’t think of anything.” One group embraced the possibility of looking foolish. The other, in my observation, tried so painfully to give the “right” answer that they couldn’t find anything to say (with rare exceptions).

However you accomplish it, if you’re going to deal with difficult conversations (and you can’t advance in your career unless you’re willing to deal with difficult situations of many sorts), you have to learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, with developing flinchability. Until you do, no amount of tips for dealing with those difficult conversations will help, because you’ll be doing your best to get away from them.

How do you prepare for difficult conversations? Do you have a way of leaning into them?

photo by: robspiegel
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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with people who want to forge top-notch speaking skills to increase their influence and impact so they can advance their career or business. He is associate professor of communication studies at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.