Awareness And Intention: Critical Skills For Difficult Conversations

Published: Nov 14, 2016
Modified: Jun 01, 2020


One of the most difficult parts of leadership is initiating difficult conversations, whether the conversations are about performance or behavior. Leaders often avoid difficult conversations because they either don’t have the skills, or they fear all the emotions that may arise.

The key to initiating difficult conversations is setting a conscious intention to guide the dialogue. Without this critical step of conscious intention setting, it’s easy to get sidetracked by unconscious intentions—our own or other people’s.

Here’s why: Behind every action, and underneath every conversation there is an intention. We are either aware or unaware of our intentions, therefore our intentions are either conscious or unconscious.

Unconscious intentions stem from unprocessed emotions such as anger, resentment, and frustration. For example if you are preparing for a conversation with an employee who challenges you or with whom you find frustrating, you may be unaware that your unconscious intention is to embarrass the employee to put him in his place, rather than help him to course-correct. As a result, your unprocessed emotions of resentment or frustrations influence your language and your conversation.

Self-awareness is the critical skill to creating conscious intentions. It takes character and leadership strength to harness and release negative emotions so that you can truly lead employees instead of blaming them.

Why it’s important

Your language always aligns with your conscious and unconscious intentions. If your intention is to embarrass an employee, this intention leaks out in your language as sarcasm, judgment, or shaming. If, however, you have brought your unconsciousness to light through the critical skill of self-awareness, then your language is forward moving, responsible and directed to a positive end result.

We are not taught about the necessity of self-awareness or the importance of setting intention in business school. Business school and management training is more about the numbers, the technical and what we refer to as “hard skills,” while self-awareness and setting intention is often referred to as "soft skills."

What we often refer to as “soft” is actually critical to leadership success. When it comes to leading others, the quicker you accept that people are governed by the invisible realm of emotions, beliefs, and desires, the easier your leadership journey will be. When initiating difficult conversation with colleagues or employees, self-awareness guides your intentions; intentions influence communication, and the communication influences your results.

About The Author

Marlene Chism is an executive educator, consultant, and author of Stop Workplace Drama (Wiley, 2011) and No-Drama Leadership (Bibliomotion, 2015). She works with executives and high-performing leaders who want to transform culture in the workplace. She can be reached at [email protected].