Dealing with conflict and difficult conversations in the workplace is rarely easy, particularly for women – it takes practice and breaking out of your comfort zone. However, the consequences of avoiding conflict is dire from both a short and long-term perspective, and for all parties involved.

A veski Inspiring Women STEM sidebyside workshop held in Melbourne, co-hosted with Michael Page and facilitated by executive coach Sue Rosen, addressed this common challenge by providing practical techniques and a framework for future conversations.

“Anecdotally, we know women are often brought up to be conflict avoiders – we’re not taught how to manage conflict yet we know it will inevitably happen,” Polly Holtby Co-founder of STEM sidebyside said.

“We’re also not of the mindset that conflict can, in fact, be constructive and difficult conversations lead to and achieve positive outcomes. Therefore, it needs to be something we take on.”

Holtby also highlighted that avoiding conflict and difficult conversations had a cost.

“Quite often, people will feel that there are risks for becoming involved – mainly that there will be consequences on relationships afterwards,” she noted.

“But what’s important to recognise is that there is a very real cost to avoiding conflict: Short-term is the effect on this situation or project. Longer-term, it could have a detrimental impact for the individual because they don’t get to manage their development effectively. And importantly, makes them less effective in facilitating and developing the careers of those around them.

“So their careers, and those of others, will progress further and be more satisfying, once they find ways to successfully have those difficult conversations, and to manage conflict.”

Importantly, Holtby said the challenge was not limited to women working in STEM fields.

“This is universal – how people act and speak to one another, any undermining within a team structure or perhaps not contributing properly in your organisation. The development of these skills benefits everyone across the board,” she explained.

Leela Lewis, Director at Michael Page and chair of [email protected] said the ability to handle conflict and difficult conversations is often a career tipping point, as well as a barrier to senior leadership roles.

“This is a skill that is expected once you reach a certain level and typically, it’s known as an area that women would rather avoid than face. The workshop with Sue taught us how to prepare ourselves to handle these conversations well and with confidence,” Lewis shared.

David George, Managing Director at Michael Page added: “I believe open and transparent communication is the only way for businesses and their employees to thrive – it enables individuals to reach their potential, it promotes equality, helps manage mental health in the workplace and also helps to mitigate discrimination.”

A simple technique for difficult conversations

An exercise shared with attendees at the STEM sidebyside workshop was likened to a well-known and widely used technique: the 30-second elevator pitch, whereby the brief conversation is framed around certain parameters, and can be practiced in advance.

Therefore, in the context of conflict and difficult conversations, Holtby said the approach was: What is your opening statement going into this discussion?

“The exercise pushed us to consider: What is your objective here? What are you looking to change and what are your intentions for the relationship? What is the overall purpose of the conversation?” she shared.

“So now, going back to the opening statement with these in mind, how are you going to start off the conversation [and what is it going to cover]?”

She said this technique creates a way for women to prepare and practice, as well as feel less like they were dealing with the issue on their own.

The partnership with STEM sidebyside aligns with Michael Page’s global purpose of changing people’s lives through creating opportunities so they can reach their potential.

“Women in leadership and diversity is a key theme across many businesses that we work with, including our own. This partnership provides us with another way to support women in business,” Lewis said.

Michael Page has assisted in funding and facilitating training forums to help connect and further develop women in these specific industries, and will continue its initiatives in 2020, George added.

Holtby said: “We are grateful to Michael Page for being involved in this program. What we’re all trying to do is improve careers for as many women in STEM as possible, to help them achieve as much as they can through their potential, their talent and hard work.

“After running this program for two years, we have received enthusiastic feedback from participants about its positive impact on both them and their careers. We look forward to continuing this impact with our third cohort in 2020 – it’s really exciting to have organisations like Michael Page on board to help us take that further.

“The energy and ideas are encouraging and invigorating.”

Further details about veski and the STEM sidebyside program can be found here.

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