I recently went kayaking and while I was out on the water, I had these observations about the similarities between kayaking and having a difficult conversation at work:
1. Do the hard part first. In the kayak, paddle into the wind first, if you have a choice. Size up the waterway, the wind, and any other environmental factors you are aware of and chart your course accordingly. Focus on the most difficult part first, paddling into the wind if you must.
At work, get the hard part of the conversation over and done with first. If you’ve got difficult news to deliver, be direct and be swift (and diplomatic, of course!). You’ll also come across as more sincere. It leaves a bad impression when you make small talk for 15 minutes and then deliver bad news.
2. You have to steer to get where you want to go. The kayak won’t naturally take you where you want to go without you being cause in the matter. You may have to paddle hard to the right to explore the cove you’ve spotted up ahead.
And in conversation, you can’t expect it to naturally go where you want it to when you have a specific topic you need to discuss. A hope and a prayer won’t get you there. You have to take conscious, deliberate action to move the conversation to where you need it to go.
3. Coasting is unpredictable. Sometimes in the kayak you need to rest. Or you want to. Whether your arms ache from paddling or you just want to soak in the moment, coasting is important. But it is incredibly unpredictable. Even if you think you’ve accounted for the wind and the waves and you think you know where they will take you, you don’t.
Likewise in conversation: when you take your eye off the target and lose focus on where you want the conversation go, you will most likely end up in unfamiliar territory. You might really enjoy where it takes you. Or, you might find yourself treading water on a dicey topic. It can be fun. It can be dangerous. It can be both – at the same time!
4. It will be messy. In the kayak you will get splashed. Even if you are an experienced kayaker, be prepared to get wet. Water drips from the paddle, it splashes from the waves, it seeps into your shorts and soaks the magazine you brought along to read when you found that “perfect spot.”
The conversation will go somewhere unanticipated. It will be uncomfortable. It will be difficult. You will make mistakes, say the wrong thing, be misinterpreted. Despite your best intentions. But the trust and respect that comes from taking on a difficult topic will deepen the relationship and make the mess worthwhile.
5. The “other guy” doesn’t have it as easy as it seems. The guy who passes you with a friendly wave from his sailboat, looking like he has the wind at his back and hardly has to do anything to zip past you has had his own share of challenges. Sure, he makes it look easy, but there’s a lot of hard work and effort that went into that.
And the person at work who makes salary negotiation, giving critical feedback and conducting performance reviews look easy has had to work hard to develop those skills. For most people, effectively conducting difficult discussions does not come naturally. Honor the work that has gone into learning the important skill of facilitating tough conversations.
6. There will be unexpected surprises. You will be paddling along in the most peaceful part of the lake. You will be thinking deep thoughts or no thoughts whatsoever. And a big fish will jump right near your kayak, startling you practically out of the boat.
The conversation will be going swimmingly. And then your counterpart shares some unknown facts or some difficult news. Or perhaps it’s good news. Either way, it may knock you off balance. That’s okay. It’s bound to happen. Steady yourself, take a deep breath, and listen deeply. You’ll know what to say next.
7. Take risks. Be vulnerable. Take the life jacket off. Live a little. What’s the fun of going all the way out into the middle of the lake if you don’t enjoy the feel of the warm sun on your shoulders?
In conversation, take a risk. Say what you need to say, even if it may not be well received. Be courageous and speak up. Deliver the difficult feedback to the person who would benefit immeasurably from knowing. Step up to the challenge.
8. You can go farther than you think you can. Your arms may be sore from paddling. The hot sun may be beating down on your back and bouncing off the water onto your face. You may be tired, but you can always paddle one more stroke. You really CAN make it to the other side of the lake or miles upstream or wherever you’re headed. And even farther.
You can build more trust and more respect into that conversation and take it farther than you thought it could go. You can learn more about the other person, disclose more about yourself, and see where the conversation takes you. You can go farther in one conversation than you ever thought you could.
9. You don’t have to be an expert to succeed. A beginning kayaker gets out onto the water and experiments. The mere act of getting in the boat, learning to paddle and making the vessel glide through the water, with even moderate proficiency is a huge success.
And in conversation, you don’t need to be an expert at facilitating dialogue to get great outcomes. You took on a tough subject, raised a sensitive issue. That alone is something many people shirk from. You are a success because you had the courage to take it on. Bravo!
10. It is rewarding. In the kayak, you can go places you’ve never been. And you can see sights you’ve seen thousands of times from a new perspective. You came. You paddled. You saw. The rewards are limitless.
After the conversation you’ll be proud of yourself for initiating it. And the rewards will last long after the conversation is over. You’ll reap the rewards through your increased confidence, your track record, and most likely, a successful resolution to a difficult situation. Paddle on!
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