Dodging Difficult Conversations

We’ve all been there. It’s your first performance review, your first meeting where a senior leader is in the room, or the first presentation that you’ll be giving solo. And you’re a little nervous.

The performance discussion starts off okay, but very quickly you start to get some feedback you weren’t expecting. Your presentation is going well at first, until you start to see some skeptical looks from the senior leader in the back of the room. And when both of these conversations start to become more difficult than you were expecting, you make the mistake that many young professionals make: as a listener, you look away from the communicator, and as a communicator you look away from the listener. 

Difficult conversations are never fun. We avoid them whenever possible in our personal lives, and so it’s no surprise that they make us uncomfortable in our professional lives. And when young professionals get uncomfortable, one of the most common things we do is to trade-off the person we’re talking to or who is talking to us. When your manager surprises you by giving you some hard feedback, the last thing you want to do is look them in the eye. And when you sense that your senior leader is losing interest or isn’t buying into your presentation, you turn back to your slides to try and remember a key data point or graph that might change their mind. 

But this isn’t a mechanical piece about how to make eye contact with someone. It’s about the importance of connection and what it means for your personal brand.

When young professionals are placed in communication situations where we are less confident our greatest tendency is to physically avert ourselves from the individual who is making us feel off-balance. But this behavior has some negative consequences. As listeners, when we look away, down, or to the side of our manager in the first scenario, we can come across at best as being indifferent to the feedback we’re receiving, and at worst, defiant. This is because while you may think you’re just looking away from your manager, your body is actually signalling your disconnect to your manager. Your head may even follow your eyes, which can come across to your manager as if you are disinterested in what they are trying to explain to you.    

On balance, as communicators, young professionals often try to trade-off the listener for their own materials when they’re giving a presentation or leading a discussion. But when we do this, we actually lose our best indicator of how our material is being received. We’re not there to simple regurgitate information. The basic intent behind a meeting or presentation is to convey information to an audience, and then have that audience respond to and/or act on a recommendation or strategy. But when we remove our physical connection with our audience, we lose our best avenue  to influence them and come across as unsure or hesitant.

The unfortunate aftermath of both of these scenarios, is that we don’t come across as confident or engaged professionals. And as a result, our manager, our peers, and our senior leaders can leave these communication situations with an unfavorable impression of us. And while communications situations like these are a pretty common occurrence, most young professionals don’t spend much time thinking about how they can influence how others form impressions of them. 

The truth is that people are always forming impressions of one another. We do it all the time in our own lives, even when we’re not aware of it. And the same is true in the workplace. Whether you’re the center of attention in a meeting or sitting in the very back of the room with no-clue why you were included on the meeting invitation, your co-workers, your manager, and your manager’s manager will all form impressions of you. It matters if you’re slouched over in your chair, daydreaming about the weekend, instead of listening to the financial analytics presentation. And people will notice if you spend the entire meeting taking notes, instead of actively engaging with the communicator. 

And while that might sound daunting, it can actually be a great means for young professionals to establish themselves as an invested employee early on in their careers. Being mindful about your personal brand goes beyond “sitting up straight,” and “looking at people while they’re talking to you.” Influencing impressions means establishing a thoughtful and engaged presence that lets a communicator know that your are actively listening to them, and lets a listener know that you’re not only engaged in your own material, but that you’re engaged in making it relevant for them.     

Engaged doesn’t mean dominant. In order to establish yourself in a conversation or presentation, you don’t have to dominate it, but you do have to present. More often than not young professionals are placed in settings where they don’t have a speaking role. But you can establish a presence for yourself without being the center of attention. Someone who is settled in their seat, is interested in what is being discussed (regardless of whether or not it effects their immediate role), and who is attentive to a communicator, can actually draw a speaker or presenter to them and be seen as contributor in the conversation, even if they don’t say a single word. 

But apart from immediate impressions, does the concept of connection and personal brand really matter down the road? 

Absolutely. In addition to improving short-term impressions, taking ownership for how others see you can have lasting effects in your career. When we interviewed executives for Sally Williamson’s book, The Hidden Factor, we found that 89% of executives said that having an established presence helps employees get ahead, and 79% of executives said that the lack of presence could hold employees back.  

So, not only do co-workers, managers, and senior leaders form impressions of you, they hang onto them as well! What do you think your colleagues would say about your brand? Would they say that you try to dodge difficult conversations or would they say that you’re an engaged communicator and listener?

We want to know what you think about the concept of personal brand. Head back to Base Camp to join the conversation!