How to reduce confusion, conflict and hurt in your conversations

By Heather Campbell

I’m going to boast a little bit this week because it sets the context for this week’s email. Plus, I want to share this story 😉.

Story first. The week before Christmas I was having coffee in the West End of Glasgow with a senior HR client. We hadn’t met for a few months and my client asked what I’d been working on recently. I talked her through the area I’m currently exploring and my rationale for it. The customer at the next table leaned over and said ‘That is absolutely fascinating. You should be doing a Ted Talk to share this.’

Since there is no Ted Talk on the horizon, and buoyed by this positive comment, I thought I’d share it with my trusted network in the hope it adds value for you plus I’d love to hear your views on it.

So here’s a summary of what I was exploring with my client.

My real passion is creating the very best possible communication in organisations. That’s everything from one-to-one conversations, to meetings, to presentations. It covers water cooler chats and formal, scheduled meetings.


Well, I’m fascinated by human interaction simply because I am. It’s the way I’m wired. But I’m passionate about it because getting human interaction right brings massive business and personal benefits. Poor interactions are, without doubt, one of the biggest, avoidable costs in organisations around the globe. Poor interactions cause confusion, conflict and hurt – and it all has a huge cost both in terms of the bottom-line and personal well-being.

That’s why the majority of my research, consulting and coaching throughout my career has focussed on improving human interactions.

Relatively early on in my career, I observed that the main cause of ineffective human interaction is fear. In helping people have better conversations, I observed how often they didn’t ask the questions they needed to ask, they fudged the message they needed to share, or they got defensive when someone challenged them because they felt fearful in some way.

If I ask that question, will I offend someone? If I share that message, will someone get angry? If someone’s challenging my views, does it mean I’m wrong or ineffective?

So, for a long time, I researched the relationship between fear and ineffective communication. The relationship is clear. Fear distorts what we think, say and do, and that comes through in how we interact with others.

Now, let me clarify a bit about ‘fear’ here. We tend to think of fear as feeling really scared and, to be fair, most senior leaders don’t feel that scared all of the time (although I’d argue pretty deep fear is way more common in the workplace than most of us like to admit). But fear can also mean concerned, anxious, nervous, worried…they’re all variations on the theme of fear.

Here’s an exercise that will demonstrate this! The next time someone says they don’t want to ask a question or share a message, ask them what they fear will happen if they do. Most of the time people will respond ‘I’m not afraid’. ‘Great’, you’ll say, ‘So what’s stopping you doing X’. And their response will be along the lines of ‘Well, I’m worried that…’ or ‘Well, I’m not sure about…’ and they’ll tell you what their fear is.

Building on my work with fear, I began to research what replaces fear. What do people who ask the questions, or share the message well or stay open and receptive when they’re challenged, feel? That research has led me to the conclusion that they feel confident. Definitions of confidence usually include words like ‘trust’, ‘belief in’, ‘faith in’. I increasingly observe that good communicators have trust, belief, and faith in their own ability to share, to ask, to respond appropriately. Therefore, they don’t shy away from doing so.

That’s why, as I continue to build my expertise and skill in this area, I increasingly believe that being able to interact well with those around us is not primarily about our skills and behaviours. It is about our ability to understand and manage our fears, and then to build confidence in our ability to say what we need to say, to ask what we need to ask, and to listen with a genuinely open mind to what others have to share.

So, this week, as you observe yourself, and others, in conversations, consider what fears are distorting the interaction and the ways in which confidence enhances interactions.

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