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Giving a difficult performance review. Saying “no” to someone or
putting your foot down on creative direction. Acknowledging and
confronting tension in a working relationship with other creative
people. These can all be difficult conversations that design
managers and their team members need to have and that we all
sometimes avoid for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, avoiding
these conversations can have a negative effect on you and on your
design team. Difficult conversations avoided are like the elephant
in the corner of the room that no one wants to acknowledge. If you
don't have the conversation, it is still showing up in your
relationship and can affect the productivity and morale of your
entire design team. This can be particularly true when working with
creative professionals who, by their very nature, are sensitive to
their surroundings and may pick up on the slightest nuance of
discord. This sensitivity, mixed in with a room full of
introspective and introverted creative folks, requires a manager
who's willing to learn and practice new communication skills.
Putting your difficult conversations on the bottom of the to-do
list everyday does not usually miraculously solve the problem or
ease the tension. On the other hand, taking some time and following
a few useful steps will prepare you for the conversation and make
it easier. And yes, you may be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.
Most importantly, when you take the responsibility to manage your
difficult conversations, your whole design team will be happier and
The first step in initiating a difficult conversation is
internal. You need to understand your own motivations and the
effect the situation is having on you before you can have a clear
picture of how to approach the conversation and what you want to
accomplish. This kind of preparation takes some time and effort,
but brings a payoff in reduced stress and an improved outcome for
both sides. By preparing yourself first, you make it easier to
create the kind of emotionally safe environment required to
encourage real conversation with a member of your creative
Questions to ask yourself to prepare for the conversation:
During your internal preparation you may find you have some
strong emotions on the subject. Acknowledging these feelings
beforehand will give you the confidence to share them during your
meeting with this person without being afraid they will boil over
on you and cause conflict. You'll know you're ready to initiate the
conversation when you feel calm and open to new perspectives. And
lastly, be ready to work with the outcome even though it may not be
your original “ideal” solution.
It's not always easy to keep one's cool and remember the big
picture during a difficult conversation. Try not to personalize it
and let the conversation turn to blame and defensiveness. Ask,
“What does resolution look like? What are the possibilities?” Don't
be afraid to simply ask the other person, “What would you like to
do here?” As a creative person you have the advantage of a
naturally curious and inquisitive mind. If you feel your darker
side rising up, take a deep breath, let your inquisitive, creative
side take over and ask questions that will help the other person
reflect and clarify his/her position. You'll be surprised how
quickly this technique can dissolve a downward spiral and get you
back on track.
No matter the outcome, if the conversation is managed well, you
have cleared the air and raised your creative relationship to a new
level. Both parties and your whole design team will be in a better
position to move forward towards your goals. You can heave a sigh
of relief and congratulate yourself for having the courage to take
one more “difficult conversation” off your to-do list.
AIGA members have opportunities to learn new skills, get advice on
pressing career questions, hear insights from industry leaders and learn
how to manage more effectively. Find out more about exclusive webinars, workshops, certificate courses and conferences.
Section: Tools and Resources -
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