The LeaderX Podcast with Lucy Barkas

LeaderX on difficult conversations with Andrea Newton

October 09, 2021 Lucy Barkas Season 3 Episode 46
The LeaderX Podcast with Lucy Barkas
LeaderX on difficult conversations with Andrea Newton
Show Notes Transcript

If there is one topic that always comes up in Leadership Development Programme Planning it is difficult conversations, or lack of them.

The ability to talk about the tough stuff is the fuel of high performance. 

Andrea Newton is a woman on a mission to get organisations talking about things that matter. Having had her own experience of rooting around at rock bottom, she encourages leaders to get comfortable with the uncomfortable and make sure they are having conversations that they need to have, whether about performance, attendance or even suicide ideation. 

To be effective as a leader in this day and age, Andrea believes that there are 7 Significant Conversations that we should all be having and her podcast Really Useful Conversations is a way of further encouraging that. to grab the free downloads 

So hi, Andrea, how are you today? I'm really good. We've actually got sunshine in the north. It's fantastic.



Oh, yeah, I've got to say, I'm not prepared to this weather. And you know, last year, I was getting used to all these heat waves. And now,



you know, after cloudy summer, I'm just like, Where's this come from? So I'm adjusting again, but I'm not going to complain. I refuse to complain. No, loving it. Yeah. So I've obviously done the introduction. But I'd really like you to tell the listeners a little bit about your story and how you've ended up being I suppose, conversational expert. But yeah, tell us a little bit about yourself.



Okay, to cut a very long story short, I originally worked in HR, that's my background. And part of my role was supporting line managers. And I kept finding that whenever there was a difficult conversation to be had, it would be something that would end up on my desk, or the at least I'd be asked to ride shotgun, while they, you know, sort of did this. And so I took it upon myself to start to do some training with the managers within the organization so that they could take care of their people responsibilities, without having to, you know, necessarily have their hand held. But that's a long time ago, because I've actually been freelance for 21 years now, Lucy, I know, it's incredible. I'm only 27 in my head. And really, over the last 21 years, I've worked with literally 1000s of managers helping them to have conversations that matter. I find that as human beings, we don't really relish the thought of what might be a challenging conversation. And obviously, managers within the workplace, they need to be able to have those, whether it's to do with performance, attendance, whether they've got an issue with a supplier or a contractor, we need to be able to have conversations that matter, whilst also maintaining a professional working relationship. And so that's what I do. And over the years, my offer has expanded. And I now help organisations to look at seven significant conversations, whether you're a team leader starting out and needing to get confident in simply giving direction, all the way through to I'm actually qualified as a tutor with the National Center for suicide prevention training. So I also help organizations to have conversations at that end of the spectrum, perhaps when things are a little bit more sensitive. So yeah, in a nutshell, started in HR decided that they needed some help, and I've never looked back.



Well, it's amazing, because I don't have an HR background. But I obviously work in the field of, you know, personal development or leadership development. And, and yet, conversations have always been pretty easy for me. And I was never afraid to have those tough ones. But I always did it with kindness and empathy. So it never really felt all that challenging. And I guess it was just a natural thing that that I had. And it was only when I started then working with organizations and teams that I realized they weren't having even the most basic of conversations. And the course that I tend to run is, I call it courageous conversations go on that heart and that courage in there. But people say to me, why aren't? Why didn't I know this stuff? How did I not know how to have a basic conversation with somebody? And it's because generally, we're not taught, you know, at any level, you know, through school or anything like that. It's only generally when you go on a workshop that I guess you do, or maybe you've been through some kind of counseling or some mediation, that you start picking up some of these skills. So So I say to them, don't worry, if you've never learned these skills, you're not expected to have them. But there is also this this real underlying issue that people just don't want to have them. So I'd like to kind of pick your brains a little bit about why do you think not not about the skills but in terms of the issues about not having these important conversations?



I think what I've learned over the years is that we could summarize it under one heading and that is fear of the outcome. I might say something that means this person that doesn't like me, and I need to be liked. It's a basic human need. Or I might say some things that causes upset or distress or I end up with a grievance or even worst case scenario, I'm looking at an employment tribunal because I handled it really clumsily. It might also be dependent on the culture of the organization that actually That isn't what we do here. I find a lot of organizations where people will say, Well, you know what, I'm reluctant to go out on a limb because nobody's got my back. Because as much as organizations say to us, we want to have a climate of open, honest, frank dialogue, they don't really do that. They only want up to a certain extent. And so there's lots of reasons you know, and as human beings, we don't like conflict, we don't like feeling awkward. And obviously, some of the conversations that I now train around around things like conversations around mental health conversations about suicide ideation, they are not subjects that we talk about anyway. So, you know, why would I go there? Unless I absolutely had to. And it was interesting. I saw some research recently that suggested as many as 78% of managers would rather avoid difficult conversations at all costs. And 66% of those said it was because it made them feel anxious. And I do also think, you know, what you said is absolutely right. We don't teach people to have these conversations. You know, I know organizations that don't even teach people how to be managers, they promote them because they were good at their job. And we almost have an expectation that as soon as you've got the title, that you can manage performance, you can tackle poor attendance, you can support somebody who's got concerns about their mental health. And it isn't something that comes naturally to everybody.



No, I totally agree with you. And I'd say that there's also one element that I found is a real blocking barrier, is again, a fear thing. But it's about, well, what if I don't know the answer? Or what if I don't have the right advice? And I say to them, you're not supposed to, you know, having a conversation doesn't mean you're in teacher mode, or you're in advisor mode. Sometimes it's just saying, How are you or I've noticed a drop in performance, or I've noticed you're not yourself, or I noticed you behave in a certain way to a meeting? How are you, and then that is often enough to start a conversation. And so feeling like you always have to have the answers or feeling like you have to be the the rescuer of people often gets in the way, especially over conversations around mental health, or some of the more vulnerable kinds of subjects.



Absolutely. And if you try to be the rescuer, in that situation, you'll probably do more harm than good. You know, fundamentally, we know that as human beings, we generally we are experts in AWS, we probably know what we really need to do and the help that we might need. And having somebody diagnose or prescribe or give us the benefit of their experience, actually, sometimes can be quite dangerous, particularly if, as you say, is some you know, concern around mental health or even suicide ideation? So I always encourage people to take a coaching approach, what do you think the issue is? How do you feel you could best overcome that? What What have you tried already? Have you spoken to anybody else about this? Because you don't have to be the expert. And again, I think that's something that when we become managers, we think we have to have all the answers, and therefore we stay away from conversations where we might not because people might rumbles realize that we don't have all the answers.



And they're just doing the wrong kind of conversation. And that's it bottom line, but I explained to people, no, you know, it's formatting it or framing it in a different style of conversation. So you said that there's seven kinds of conversations that people tend to avoid. And obviously, this is the leadership podcast. So I'm presuming that this applies to leaders as well. So can you just run me through? What are those seven that you see?



So one, you've mentioned the courageous conversation, having the courage to say what needs to be said. Now, obviously, we're both here today talking about that in the workplace. But those are also skills that translate to everyday life, you know, people who feel they're being bullied, for example, they need to have the courage to say that's not acceptable. So there's the courageous conversation. There's what I call the crucial conversation where I perhaps do have a concern about you. There's the confident conversation because I am now assertive, I might have to represent my team at a meeting with more senior people or I might have to go out and meet customers or suppliers, I need to be confident to say what needs to be said. And that's kind of the way it goes all the way through to the crisis and the critical conversations, which unfortunately, the the times that we're living through, that conversation is becoming more and more important for leaders especially if they are genuinely concern for the well being of their teams. So to my mind, an effective leader will be able to conduct all seven of those conversations and be able to support people not be the expert.



Yeah, and I bet there's very few leaders that actually feel equipped to be able to have those conversations, which is why the work that you do is so important. And, and yes, with your own podcast about being able to just share some of those stories must be, you know, really powerful for people, you know, just whether they're now doing their daily commute again, or going for a run, just going for a walk, just being able to actually process and realize that they can do this, it is safe to do it.



Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, we're, we're recording this in the week where we've got world Suicide Prevention Day. And I am really encouraging people to say that they don't need to be a mental health expert to make a difference to somebody in this situation, you know, we need to bust a few myths. And we need to recognize that not everybody is having thoughts of suicide will be stood upon the bridge, staring down into the water below, you know, that could be the person that's opposite you in a disciplinary hearing, that could be the person that you're now having to talk to about potential redundancy. And it's about being equipped as a decent human being, to do the right thing by that person, whatever the circumstances are. And so being able to have conversations of that nature, to me is absolutely crucial, absolutely critical for any decent leader.



And you know, what, one of the things that I often see and experience is because of the fear that people have around having these conversations, they either don't have them, or they put their arm up. And they you know, almost go at it like a machine without zero empathy, zero humanity. And then they actually create everything that they're afraid of, you know, the disconnection the bad relationships, the, the grievances against them. And so again, that's why I like the word courageous, because it's been able to say, Actually, I'm just going to meet you, human to human here. And the the information or the questions that I'm going to ask, you know, I don't know the answers for we're going to get into messy territory here, neither of us are in control, we're just going to see how it goes. And, and to do that, you just, you do have to be human. And I love it that you brought that up.



And the important bit there, as you say, it's not the I've got the answers, it's that I'm willing to help you find them. You know, that is the real key here, especially if we are talking about somebody whose mental health isn't great, and they're starting to feel ineffective, the start develop a burden start to feel as though they're not productive. I don't want you to have the answers, I want you to help me feel as though I'm capable of finding answers for myself. And that's why I always advocate that coaching approach. You know, so what do you think will be helpful here? What have you tried already? What ideas have you got? And really using a combination of compassion and curiosity? Those are the two things for me that really make that connection, compassion that I care about you as a fellow human being. I'm not your mother. I'm not your social worker. I'm certainly not your therapist, but as a fellow human being I care about you. And I'm curious to understand your situation. So that I don't assume I don't prejudge, I don't suggest, so that I really hear you for who you are. Now, Wow,



that's so important. And, and I think everybody really needs to have some kind of development in how to do some some basic coaching skills. And to be fair, there's no excuse not to now. And there is a coating industry has been around 3040 years, probably even longer now. And I had my first coach training as a way to deal with poor performance. So I think it was called coaching for performance back, you know, when I was about 2122, and I'm so thankful for that, which is probably why I have always found conversations quite easy, because right at the start of my management career, I was taught the basic skills, but I still avoided some conversations. And and the result was usually those little molehills ended up creating huge mountains because I left it too long. And I remember the very first time I ended up having one of these really powerful conversations, probably about three or four weeks overdue, and I'd already managed to disengage my whole team. I'd I'd really upset a very key influencer within the As a team, and she was very upset with me, and I just made a very flippant comment because I was annoyed about something. And but that stuck with her I, you know, next day I'd forgotten all about it. But for her, it stuck. And she didn't have the courage to come and talk to me about it. And an all I noticed was her bad behaviors. So eventually, we sat down, and I said, Look, there's something going on here. A few weeks ago, we were brilliant. We had a great relationship. And now when I walk in the room, I can feel something's, what's going on. And then I just listened. And I listened to her explain it was this one comment that I made. And I didn't try and defend myself. I didn't try and excuse myself. I just said, I'm really sorry. And then we started, how can we move this forward? How can we repair it? And I think that was for me, the moment when I realized this can be done. Yes, it could have been horrendous. But actually, this can be done. And, you know, 20 odd years later, we're still friends.



She's one of my best supporters. The thing there, Lucy, you were prepared to own it, you were prepared to say I'm sorry, which takes us back to the point you make, where often we're so armored up that we actually can't be vulnerable and say, Yeah, I messed up there. And sorry. And, you know, thinking about that whole business of being armored up, sometimes we do need to acknowledge if we have played a part in whatever the issue might be. And like you, I go into a lot of organizations, and I find that what might wants to be in a molehill is now a massive mountain range. And we have developed work arounds and we've got, we've moved people to other departments, and we've done all sorts of ridiculous things, to actually avoid it rather than deal with it.



And the thing is, everybody knows, it's like, it's the elephant in the room. So yeah, as you're moving people around, or creating new roles, or bringing in this process, everybody knows what,



yeah. I was once on a Monday morning with a site manager in a construction company that I was working with, and he just got a list of the tradesmen that he was expecting on his site that week. And I could see him going through the list and mentally go, God, I've got him, right. Okay, that won't get done this week, then I've got him. So I better get some more help with that, because that isn't his thing. And I said to him, Pete, what are you doing? And he said, Well, we do this every week, he said, because you never know who you're going to get. And I said, but you've just gone through all those people. And you've had to think of a workaround, because of who you've got. Why doesn't anyone just talk to them about their performance so that when they rock up on site, they can do what you need? They are? Well, he said no, you see, is a really nice lad. And nobody wants to upset him. And he is related to the MD and you know, he's good at what he does, he just doesn't do a lot of it. And it was just like, the organization must have been losing so much performance production money by working around instead of actually sitting down eyeball to eyeball kneecap to kneecap and tackling whatever the actual real issue was.



And you know, what people are generally far more reasonable than we give them credit for. And you know, again, if you have the conversation in the right way, people are generally, you know, oh, yeah, I get it. Oh, I didn't realize that was an issue. Sometimes they can get quite annoyed that But why didn't you tell me this months ago. And I love the phrase that Bernie brown uses where she says clear is kind unclear is unkind. And I think that's really valuable to say that actually, if you're not having these conversations, you've been really unkind to the other person allowing them to fail. Yeah. So just tell me in terms of the we've talked about coaching skills, we've talked about taking off the armor? What are the skills? Do you kind of teach? Or what are your your common go to tricks of the trade really, that you would love leaders to hear?



I think one of the things that you've actually already referenced, and that's being prepared to shut up and listen. Again, it comes back to partly thinking that we have to have all the answers. And you know, as I'm sure you've heard, Mr. covi, say, seek first to understand, only then to be understood. And one of the things that I tend to work a lot with is helping managers realize there's a big difference between listening to understand and listening to reply. And most of us in the workplace times time, we're under pressure. We've got things to do just as we listen in order to reply, and we don't actually process And really hear what people are saying. And if you are going to have a conversation that counts, it has to have that listening to it. Which means that sometimes you do have to suspend your own agenda, your own judgment, your own thoughts, values, beliefs, and really hear what the other person is saying. And again, listening is never something that we're taught to do. We're taught to speak and write and, you know, communicate in all sorts of ways. But I don't know about you, I never did a class on listening.



No, no, solely was only been really I had training or and in particular, when I did my own coach training, that I realized that there were all these different levels of listening. And even, you know, just being able to hold a conversation and zoning in and out as we internally process that information. It was mind blowing to me. And again, when I share this with with people, they're like, why didn't I know this? And like, none of us did. So don't don't beat yourself up. But now you have the knowledge, now do something different about it.



And it does take practice, for sure. And that's the bit you know, sort of at the sharp end of the conversations that I help people with. So if we are talking about somebody who is in distress, sometimes all they need is someone to listen. I don't even need you to ask questions. I just need you again. It's that compassion. I need you to make me feel as though I matter. And sometimes making me feel as though I matter is nothing more than giving me your time and attention. And I do think we worry far too much about conversations of that nature, when actually, sometimes it is just about shut up and listen, yeah. I was



perfect for a podcast because they're hopefully shutting up and listening. And yeah, and it's really going into their minds. Yeah,



absolutely. I mean, I had my own experience of rooting around at rock bottom, you know, the wheels really did fall off. And my intention was to end my life. And, you know, I'm quite open about that story. And the thing that got me through wasn't some smart expert with all the answers. It was simply people who were prepared to hear what I had to say, to make me feel as though I mattered. People who didn't judge me, people who didn't tell me that you know, what I really should do or how I ought to feel. But people who were just there and said, talk to me about what's going on for you help me understand. And I know that if you are ever caught up in that place, with only your own thoughts for company, you know, just being able to offload just being able to share with some desks, you know, they say a problem, a problem shared is a problem half doesn't it? That's what they have not got that the wrong way around. And so one of the critical elements around conversations that matter is listening.



And, you know, during my lowest times, and I think for me, I wasn't at rock bottom, but I was going through divorce, and I was, you know, had my children were all upset, and I was trying to hold down my job and work at childcare. It was all just everything was in chaos. And I'd been brought up to just get on with that police officer up and carry on. And I think and the most powerful question that somebody said to me, Well, they said, Lucy, I notice you're not yourself. How can I help? Yeah, actually, I didn't want them to do anything. But I just said, asking that question, stopping me in my tracks, is all actually needed. And then I was able to start talking. So I get it doesn't need to be, you know, a really big deal for whatever conversation sometimes it can just open with, how are you? Or I notice? Yeah, what's going on with you?



I'm here, for sure. Because so many of us are brought up to put a brave face on it, you know, and that was actually the cause of my situation was because I'd put a face on it for too long. And it got to the point that I just couldn't hold it any longer. But admitting to somebody that that's how you're feeling given the world in which we live was a real challenge. But like you said, just having somebody notice, I'm just a bit concerned about you ensure that everything's okay. All my days the value of feeling as though you matter enough that someone's noticed and is prepared to give you time and attention. You know, just to burst that toxic bubble and to help you open your mind to other possibilities. So we should never underestimate the power of good listening. Give it a good listen.



And you know what, once you start doing it, you can't stop. It's, it's almost like there's this skill. And as soon as you start getting these really positive responses, and you realize it, it's not so scary as you thought it was, you just cannot stop having these open, Heart to Heart kind of conversations, everything is led with empathy and kindness. And I've got to say, if I had a leader, a boss, you know, any colleague who treated me in that way, I'd be so loyal to them, I'd you know, I just want to repay them for all of the help and kindness. So it's not just about fixing performance issues, it leads into every element of your organization, the culture, the business. And so yeah, we just need to get, get going with this.



It's basic human psychology, you know, I will only value the business if I believe the business values me, and how do I know that you value me because you've got time for me, you show concern for me, you're interested in me as a human being. And I work in a lot of industries, such as construction, engineering, etc, etc, where, you know, the, the the mental health risks, etc, are a lot higher. And they shy away from that listening thing, because that's pink and fluffy. You know, that's not what we do in this industry. And actually, it isn't, the art of listening is about being a respectful, decent human being, it isn't pink and fluffy. And we don't need to, you know, lie down on the couch and tell me all about it, it's not about that, you could have a really useful conversation, simply by going for a walk around the block with somebody, we don't have to be sad, making eye contact and sharing a box of tissues, you know, it could literally be a walk around the block.



And you know, what I also, I find, actually standing shoulder to shoulder with somebody is even more powerful than the face to face. It says, you know, I'm on the journey with you, I'm going to walk the path with you. And so I love that you brought that analogy. And



so, you know, really, I think it was was it the Dalai Lama, he said something like, when you talk, all you do is share your knowledge. But when you listen, that's when you learn more knowledge. And we don't do enough of it. And I know it sounds naff, you know, good listening skills. And everybody says it to you as though Oh, that old chestnut. But the power of it, especially in conversations where somebody is struggling to be honest, and admit what's really going on for them. That non judgmental, non critical listening to me is, is absolutely key.



And, you know, it then spans out, you know, from your work environments, to, you know, the way that you parent your children the way you are with your partner at home. And it's just like this ripple effect, but that does change changes your whole world. When you you're able to master these skills. So if you were to think, you know, and let's say everybody in the next, you know, three to five years, they really understand from the back of this whole COVID thing that actually we need to be more human, we need to be a bit kinder, we need to listen to our people. And you fast forward five years, 10 years, maybe what's the difference that you think we'll have in organizations if people just had these kind of conversations?



For me, it's the shift from people thinking that health and safety is hard hats Hi, this and safety boots, and actually recognizing a truly healthy and safe environment is one where the culture is supportive of the people within it. And I talk a lot about psychological safety. And leaders are the single biggest influence in creating a psychologically safe workplace. Because when people feel safe, when people feel as though they matter, they can bring their whole selves to work. And when I can do that, I can play to my strengths, I can be authentic, I can be genuine, and I can invest my energy in doing a fantastic job for you because I'm not having to use any of my energy to stay safe. And therefore, employee engagement, commitment, motivation, morale, if I feel valued in that way, organization, Lee, not only are you going to get a better day's work out of me, but you're also likely to get more loyalty. I'm probably going to be an advocate for the business rather than, oh, I work there and it's all right. You know, it's so there's so many benefits to us creating a climate where that's how people feel about the jobs



they do. Do you know I hope your vision becomes a reality because let's face it out after the last 18 months have been really hard, really disconnected. Wouldn't it be amazing to have organizations that are that healthy, where you just love being with the people you work with.



And I think there's a lot of organizations that have learned a lot of lessons these last 18 months, and actually organizations who are still learning, because I'm hearing now about people who are actually resigning, rather than going back to perhaps the, shall we say, toxic culture that they used to work at. And



you know, what, it probably didn't feel toxic before. No, but now people have stepped away and re evaluated that. I don't want that anymore up in the air that the phrase the great resignation, honestly, I don't know, a single company that isn't experiencing this at the moment. So it's real. Yeah, so and so we're at the end of our time, and I really should have put an hour and a half in because we're having great conversations, though the irony of it. But why don't you just tell me? Where can people connect with you? What are you up to at the moment, any new exciting stuff going on?



Okay. Well, this week, particularly beginning of September, as I said, it's world Suicide Prevention Day, which leads us through to mental health awareness day on the 11th of October. So really, the next four weeks for me, I'm doing quite a lot of work in that area, really helping managers to, you know, to develop their scales, especially now, as we are inviting people back to the workplace more and more, we need to recognize that in the last 12 months, there's been an additional 300,000 referrals to mental health services. Now, statistically, some of those people are part of your team. So are you able to support that is the return to your workplace safe and successful. And that, for me is a big piece at the moment because of what's happening in industry in general. And so I've put together a number of online resources that people can grab free of charge, the websites, confident, and if you go on to forward slash stuff, because we like things to be simple. Go to the stuff page, and you'll find loads of free stuff to help you have conversations that matter. There's also information about there if you do need to signpost any of your people for professional help be really useful resources is there. And obviously my podcast, really useful conversations is a weekly dose of step up, say what needs to be said. Oh, that's



awesome. Well, I do encourage everybody to go there. And yeah, you've been an absolute delight. And I'm so glad that we've connected and, and yeah, long May our conversations continue. Thank you, Andrea. It's been a pleasure. Thank you.