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Mastering Difficult Conversations In The C-Suite – Do You See The Elephant In The Room?

Written by: Yvette Durazo, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


An extensive Stanford study affirms that from the perspective of the CEO, conflict resolution skill is missing in the C-suite. Conflict resolution is one of the most sought out skills for companies. CEOs point out that conflict resolution skills are integral in the modern-day work environment.

The Stanford research highlights a significant shortage of advice at the top level and the need to coach employees to master conflict resolution skills. Typically, CEOs hire coaching experts to improve these areas, but dealing with conflict ranks as one of the primary issues for CEOs.

The findings of the Stanford study ring true today – there is a need to improve talent and master difficult conversations in the C-suite. During the transition, CEOs often run into confrontational executives and their difficult relationships. In the context of the C-suite, the elephant in the room is having difficult conversations. But the lack of skilled leaders makes it difficult to navigate and deal with such conversations.

Several polls and studies show that most people find it challenging to have difficult conversations with their co-founders and board of directors. The fact is that most executives avoid engaging in difficult conversations because they don’t have the proper training and experience in dealing with complex situations.

Here are some of those situations:

  • Conversations around team performance and morale

  • The conversation about appraisals

  • Informing specific employees about why they won’t get a paid raise and promotion in a team

  • Deciding to shut down a specific project or a division that involves hundreds or thousands of people

  • Poor sales performance, operational performance, and financial performance KPIs

  • Having a difficult talk with an existing investor about enforcing impractical demands

  • Discussing the certainty and uncertainty of income with employees

  • Having regular meeting conversations and pointing out lack of communication

  • Communicating the change of roles and responsibilities to scale up operations

  • Conducting board meetings without consensus

  • Discussions about terminating employees or decreasing performance

The most effective and successful leadership comes down to how to master to manage vital conversations in different corporate situations. Soft skills paired with proper guidance and tools can turn the tide of a difficult and awkward conversation into a positive or productive outcome.

Self-Audit and Reflection Approach

Self-audit should involve giving yourself an objective rating based on answered questions. It will make it easier to navigate areas that require improvement. Assign a zero rating with not low/not proficient and ten with highly proficient.

Based on different degrees, here are critical questions you can ask in a self-audit:

  • Have you had the chance to conduct any type of evaluation about the self-awareness of your team to level the playing field?

  • Do you take into account psychological safety and believe in having direct, transparent, and open communication without retribution?

  • When engaging in conversations, do you blame and invalidate the opinions of others?

  • Do you believe you carefully listen to others and pay close attention to employees’ verbal cues and body language?

  • Do you possess the skills to communicate with employees in tough situations?

  • Are you willing to point out the elephant in the room during difficult conversations?

  • Do you showcase empathy while conversing with employees in challenging situations?

  • Do you have the confidence to manage different personality types and argumentative tones where employees want to debate when they feel threatened?

  • Can you share the truth easily in difficult situations?

  • When having a difficult conversation, do you value timing to leave out certain details for later or address an issue not to exacerbate a complex situation?

  • If required, can you navigate collective benefits and outcomes?

  • Do you understand the different perspectives and interests of your team?

  • Can you determine the root cause of a reaction in difficult situations and address them promptly?

  • Do you believe in creating a safe environment that propels employees to talk more openly about uncomfortable and unpleasant issues without having to mask the information?

  • Do you perform follow-ups after having a difficult conversation?

C-Suite Role: Formulating Appropriate Responses and Communicating Effectively

The relationship and the work environment issues reflect executives’ energy and make them question whether or not they made the right choice by joining a specific C-suite. Most issues stem from “how” a company’s CEO decides to operate and how executive peers behave. In hindsight, it is a combination of both elements.

When executives assume the responsibility of a new C-suite role ‒ there is usually a struggle for new executives to come to terms with their decisions and make a long-term commitment to the company. And how these executives formulate their next responses lead to complex situations.

In retrospect, there are several responses executives can use when dealing with potentially dysfunctional and difficult situations. When your team is part of the C-suite in your company ‒ it is vital to establish credibility and valued partners and executives have to communicate effectively to build trust and directly influence decisions.

Fundamentally, the focus of C-suite executives revolves around enterprise goals. However, most professionals understand that tapping into the C-suite can be daunting. It is no wonder there’s a reserved seat for these professionals and business leaders to render valuable insights.

After all, they take time to listen, improve their understanding, ask relevant questions, speak in a concise manner, share expertise, and strategically follow through on priorities. When it comes to C-suite, the solution lies in having strategic conversations. It is an effective way to prepare your team and yourself and influence top executives to connect with peers.

Final Thoughts

Ideally, it is better not to rely on traditional training courses. Your focus should be on “how” to zero in on the C-suite participants and cater to their needs. It means having topical conversations and mapping out the potential outcomes. Most importantly, maintain quality dialogue and inform listeners with a thorough analysis.

Executives often encounter a challenging work environment. Whether they want to assert loyalty, raise their voice, exit, or explore other opportunities, there are useful ways to frame these responses in difficult workplace conditions. It takes wisdom and due diligence of CEOs to showcase leadership and assume a role that can help out executives and avoid dysfunctional work environments. Conflict Intelligence Quotient “Conflict-IQ™” is a good read for people having trouble managing conflicts in the workplace and solving them effectively.

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Yvette Durazo, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Yvette Durazo, MA, PCC is the author of the book Conflict Intelligence (Conflict-IQ™) The Missing Piece to Turbocharge Leaders’ and Organizations’ Emotional Intelligence. She is the principal consultant of Unitive Consulting, a workplace organizational effectiveness, strategic conflict management, and leadership development firm.

Yvette brings innovative techniques to promote a positive workplace culture in organizations to encourage trust, productive human capital engagement, and inclusion. Clients benefit from her wealth of knowledge and professional experience in the art of building a trusting workplace relationship. Some of her services include; training, mediating conflicts in the workplace, anti-bullying, settlement negotiations, developing dispute system design, and bringing unique strategies to address the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) to the workplace.

Yvette is passionate about optimizing professionals and teams to engage in constructive problem-solving communication toward instilling respect, civility, and collaboration. She believes that human conflict is one of the most important things organizations must learn to harness and combat to avoid derailing of employees’ performance. Her methodologies are like a vitamin boost to the immunity of organizations.

Presently, Yvette is a UCSC HR Program Co-Chair and an instructor for the Human Resource Management Certification program at the University of California Santa Clara Extension Silicon Valley. She also is an instructor for the University of California Davis Conflict Resolution Program. She also teaches for Portland State University Conflict Resolution and Mediation courses for undergraduate and master’s degree students. She holds a PCC coaching credential from the International Coach Federation, a master’s degree in Conflict Resolution, Negotiation, and Peacebuilding from California State University Dominguez Hills, and an undergraduate degree in International Business from San Diego State University. She is a former Core Adjunct Professor at National University, where she taught courses in Alternative Dispute Resolution, Mediation, and Communication for over six years.

A former Instructor for the Leon Guanajuato Mexico Institution Power of Justice, Yvette has authored many publications and articles on conflict resolutions. Yvette is fully bilingual in English and Spanish and has expertise with cultural diversity and inclusion.



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