The Benefits of Having a Difficult Conversation


What do you think matters more for your child?

Option 1: Joining the PTA, coaching their peewee football team, or volunteering at their school to help out.

Option 2: Talking to your child about complex social issues.

There’s little doubt that when it comes to parenting, coaching, or leading involvement matters. Being engaged in the process of development and consistently showing up is really important. But when it comes to involvement, we often prioritize the wrong tactics. We pick items that look good on paper, that from the outside seem like they must matter. But we often neglect the simple, actionable items that make much more difference.

It’s the coach who obsesses over the intricacies of the day’s workout, without taking the time to get ‘buy-in’ from his team. The executive who sends his team to a ‘teamwork’ outing at an adult playground filled with trust falls, instead of creating the space for employees to have an authentic conversation.

According to a 2012 report that surveyed parents and tested children from around the world, it wasn’t how much a child’s parents volunteered at their school that mattered. In fact, volunteering at school had at best no effect, and at worst a small negative effect on performance. For young children, simply having parents who read themselves, showing them that it has value, did more to improve reading scores and ability. Taking it a step further and reading with a child or discussing books helped even more.

As children reached their high school years—when most of us replied with a curt “fine” when asked anything by our parents; when it seems all parents are good for is driving them to soccer practice—did involvement finally matter? No, engaging your child in conversation on complex issues had a significantly greater impact on their academic performance. As the report concluded, “Fifteen-year-old students whose parents discuss complex social issues and books with them not only enjoy reading more, but perform better in reading and are aware of which learning strategies are effective.”

For a long time with the teams and companies I worked with, I focused on the items that seemed like they would matter. Presentations on a topic, conveying information related to performance, and the like. And sure, the education, talks, and presentations are needed and valuable. But what I realized is that they largely stay on the superficial level. They are surface-level interventions. In the past few years, I’ve occasionally tried something different. Conversations on difficult topics. Give people a safe space to express themselves, to have a voice on meaningful matters.

And while the above study was about academic performance being aided by difficult conversation, I can’t help but think that the benefits extend far beyond. As we wrestle with strange times and social unrest, we’d all be better off if we figure out how to have difficult conversations. To do the difficult, instead of the item that seems like it makes a difference, but actually doesn’t.


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1 comment

  • fantastic writing. this exactly the relationship I had with my sons. they both are very engaged individuals and both are very intelligent and intropesctive and love LEARNING (and are very good at the skill of learning).

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