Let’s have a tough conversation

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We’ve all been there. Uncomfortable silences, glaring issues that everyone knows about but no one wants to talk about, the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’. As humans, we naturally avoid conflicts. We would rather ignore the issue or get lost behind our screens, coding away, or jump into another meeting. The problem, however, continues to reverberate. Complaints are heard, yet no solutions appear on the horizon.

Let's have a tough conversation

As a Scrum Master, people often turn to you to vent their frustrations. It’s challenging, particularly if you possess a peacemaker mindset (like me!). You might find yourself pondering, “why can’t people just talk to each other?”

Let’s delve into the hows and whys of facilitating difficult conversations and why they are essential, especially in a self-managing team.

It’s OK to clash

The first step towards solving a problem is recognizing that it exists. If your team feels a tension in the air, it often means that ideas are clashing. And that is okay. Bringing heads together does not eliminate the possibility that heads will clash. Sometimes, conflict can lead to better outcomes, sharper ideas, and clearer pathways. It is crucial to clear the air quickly and not to evade challenging dialogues. Letting issues fester does no one any good.

In our increasingly remote work settings, physical avoidance becomes easier. We can hide behind screens, mute our microphones, and turn off our cameras. But these actions can also distance us from important discussions. So how can we facilitate or lead a difficult conversation or dialogue as a Scrum Master, especially when your team is miles apart?

Facilitating tough conversations

🏳️ Be a neutral ground

As a Scrum Master, you must create a neutral space where everyone feels comfortable voicing their opinions. It’s not about who is right but about what is right for the project and the team. It means not taking sides and focusing on solutions rather than problems.

👂🏿Listen actively

Active listening goes beyond merely hearing words. You need to engage with what the team members are saying, asking probing questions to delve deeper into issues. It’s not about immediately jumping to solutions; sometimes, it’s about understanding the problem better.

5️⃣ Employ the “Five Whys” technique

Often, the issue that appears on the surface is not the real problem. By employing the “Five Whys” technique, you dig deeper to get to the root cause. Ask “Why?” five times in succession, each question digging deeper into the previous answer. This strategy often unveils deeper issues that might have otherwise stayed buried.

☀️ Positive framing

Instead of focusing on what went wrong or who is to blame, try to frame the conversation in terms of learning and growth. What can the team do differently moving forward? This positive framing shifts the focus from blaming to understanding and learning.

A self-managing mindset

Your ultimate aim should be to teach people how to manage themselves, including managing difficult conversations. It’s about fostering a culture where team members recognize that tough talks are sometimes necessary. It’s a part of a self-managing mindset that needs to be cultivated over time. Let’s explore some actionable steps.

🫶🏾 Build trust, promote openness

Building trust within a team serves as the foundation for any difficult conversation. When team members trust each other and feel secure in their working environment, they are more likely to engage in honest communication. Promote openness by acknowledging everyone’s contributions and encouraging vulnerability. Trust is not built overnight; it’s a long-term commitment that everyone should be willing to make.

🛂 Set clear boundaries and norms

A self-managing team knows what to expect from each other because they have set clear boundaries. What is acceptable behavior? What is not? Having these guidelines ensures that everyone understands the limitations and freedoms of their roles, which can make tough conversations easier to navigate. Work with the team to establish norms around communication. When is it appropriate to bring up an issue? What channels should we use? Should it be during the daily stand-up, a one-on-one, or a dedicated session? This structure provides a framework for when and how to initiate challenging conversations.

💓 Foster emotional intelligence skills

Understanding oneself and others is vital in managing challenging conversations. Encourage team members to develop emotional intelligence skills like empathy and self-awareness. This could mean offering workshops, sharing articles, or discussing the importance of these skills in meetings.

🔁 Use constructive feedback loops

Feedback loops allow a team to continually improve by analyzing what is and isn’t working. When team members become accustomed to both giving and receiving constructive feedback, the stage is set for challenging yet fruitful conversations.

🆙 Promote a ‘Fail fast, learn faster’ culture

Reiterate that making mistakes is not just okay but is a part of the learning process. In a culture that sees failure as an opportunity for growth rather than a point for blame, difficult conversations become opportunities for improvement.

✅ Celebrate the wins

When a difficult conversation leads to a positive outcome, celebrate it. This reinforcement helps solidify the idea that tough conversations are necessary and beneficial.

Walk the talk: the courage to converse

As a Scrum Master, you are often the role model for your team. The best way to teach is to lead by example. Be the first to bring up uncomfortable topics in a tactful manner. Show that it is okay to be vulnerable and that confronting issues head-on is the only way to solve them. Your behavior will serve as a blueprint for team members, guiding them on how to handle such situations themselves.

To cultivate a self-managing mindset, you can’t merely set it and forget it. It requires consistent effort, regular check-ins, and a willingness to adapt your approaches. As the Scrum Master, your role involves guiding this process, offering support, and providing the resources necessary for growth. With time and practice, your team will develop the skills and mindset necessary to manage themselves, even when the conversations get tough.

Difficult conversations are just that—difficult. But avoiding them does not make the problems go away, it only magnifies them. Especially in agile settings, where collaboration and communication are key, learning to navigate challenging dialogues is crucial. As a Scrum Master, you are well-positioned to guide your team through these awkward but necessary interactions. Cast aside fears and reservations. After all, the elephant will only leave the room when we are brave enough to face it.