How to manage difficult conversations

Daniela Gheorghe pictured at the impact lab 2019.

Florentina-Daniela Gheorghe, Skoll Scholar 2018-19, has spent the last year in Oxford studying her MBA. To end the year, she reflects on her own personal learnings and passes them onto you to take forward on your own journey.

I love to ask questions to deepen my understanding. I believe asking great questions is an awesome skill to have. This year, however, I discovered that I am an activist: I raise my voice in matters that contradict my values. And it happened a few times. I also had the wrong impression that many people think like me and I assumed that my MBA colleagues and I think alike. Instead, I learned there are endless perspectives that I need to acknowledge and that the ‘18-19 MBA cohort at Oxford Saïd are not as vocal as I expected.

Here are some stats: this year we were 315 people from 62 countries, average age 28, with 24% of us coming from finance, 17% coming from consulting and the rest 59% coming from 16+ other fields, with an average of 5 years of experience. Wouldn’t you expect these young people to make their voices heard?

In some sections, many were silent during lectures and didn’t ask clarifying questions. Some possible reasons: they didn’t want to disturb the lecturer’s flow, or they thought that their question might be “stupid” and might not bring value to the rest. Culture, personality and English proficiency also play a role. And then there were people who might have been experts in their field.

I experienced many times the impostor syndrome. However, it didn’t stop me from asking brief questions in class: it shows the lecturer where I am in my learning, it helps me clarify my thoughts and other people can benefit too. Even more, given my years of groundwork, I could potentially bring a new perspective on interpreting industry practices and academic research. I kept my computer open many times in class to make sure I get a gist of a concept like debt/equity ratio and use it correctly in my question, but that didn’t stop me from taking my understanding to the next level with a question. The worst thing that could happen was to leave the classroom without understanding the foundation of what was taught.

Question the default – Courage to ask Why

In a world in which “business as usual” – with profit as the single end goal – doesn’t seem to make sense anymore, we need courageous leadership who dares to question the default practices. I actively decided to practice this courage. Don’t be afraid to ask in impact investing class why we assume that tools of traditional finance can be transferred as they are into impact investing. Don’t be afraid to ask in economics and finance, why the perpetual growth assumption is not questioned.

Speak your mind

How many of us question the things we hear from lecturers and speakers? Being at Oxford, we had access to amazing speakers: in class, at the Oxford Union or at events around the campus. Amazingly reputed people come to Oxford, and that’s a great privilege. But Oxford also teaches you to speak your mind, not to get intimidated by the reputation of the speaker. We might have valuable insights. Politely acknowledge someone’s effort to share their story in front of a class of students and then speak up. Just remember to speak with humility!

Always remind people that every management decision affects people

It’s not about the merger post acquisition, it’s about two teams of dedicated people learning how to work together. Thinking about people can help you better understand the expected and unexpected consequences.

Speak with your heart but wrap your position in data: every time

I learned this the hard way. My friend, an editor with The Economic Times, showed me how to keep my emotions under control and use data instead to make the point. It does require a bit more (home) work. I tend to let myself taken away by emotions. When I hear something that contradicts my core believes, such as anti-refugee statements or opinions about “the poor’s ignorance”, my blood pressure goes up. Some perspectives out there really clash with my genuine belief that humanity is equality distributed in every one of us.

Be assertive  

When things go rough, remember to be assertive. One of the best take-aways I have from my year is the Even Fish Need Confidence (EFNC) framework that I learned during peer-support training: explanation, feelings, needs, consequences. Use this framework to communicate openly to someone who might use words that trigger negative emotional reactions in you: explain what happened (facts), express your feelings about what happened (vulnerably), state what you need (to make this relationship work), state the positive (and negative) consequences if your needs are (not) met. Communicating with this framework builds respect between people and reduces the risk that someone gets hurt. Difficult conversations are healthy and important. Constructive conflict, if orchestrated, can help everyone learn how to be a team player. It’s not an easy task to orchestrate conflict but it might be worth it. We are all on a discovery journey to become a better version of ourselves. Enjoy yours!

Daniela Gheorghe, 2018-19 Skoll Scholar.