What is a “difficult conversation”?
A difficult conversation can be described as any situation where the needs, wants, opinions, perceptions of others are diverse, with their feelings and emotions running strong. We all face difficult conversations at some stage in our lives, both in and out of the workplace. These conversations can arise, in an organisational context, as the result of several situations including performance management, discipline, personal issues, redundancy, interpersonal conflict, difficult manager or employee and customer service issues.
Some difficult conversations are planned, some unplanned. Some are out of your control; some are a direct result of your actions or behaviour. Some are complex; some simple. No matter what the root cause of the issue is, if it leads to having a difficult conversation, you will tend to react in one of three ways: freeze, fight or flight. You can choose to “freeze” (do nothing) or take “flight” (remove yourself from the situation and people involved) but in an organisational situation “fighting” the issue (not the person!) is a hallmark of good leadership and a key element of your personal and professional development within your journey to greatness.
The consequence of not having a difficult or uncomfortable conversation can be costly. Handling a difficult conversation requires skill and empathy, but ultimately it requires the courage to go ahead and do it. The more you get into the habit of facing issues head on, the more adept you will become at it.
In having these conversations, you will encounter a wide range of personality types ranging from those who love to be confrontational (eg narcissist type personalities) through to those who want to avoid difficult conversations altogether.
So yes, it is important to have the right skills, empathy and courage to have situational awareness of the issue(s) at hand as well as the profile of the person(s) involved. Consider what you think their point of view or position is, their communication and personality style, how well you know them, etc.
If you are unsure of how to best approach a difficult conversation, here is one tip to guide you. Know how to start! It is easy to avoid having the conversation because you do not know how or where to start. The best way to start is with a direct approach as no-one likes to be ambushed! Remember to be clear about the core issue and know your audience well enough to anticipate how they might react. It is also important to choose an appropriate place and time to start the conversation.
Below are some strategies to help you with difficult conversations:
1. Be clear about the issue
To prepare for the conversation, ask yourself two questions. Firstly, “What is the behaviour that is underlying the problem?” and secondly, “What is the impact that the behaviour is having on me, the team or the business?” Try to clearly understand the issue so you can articulate it in two or three succinct statements. If not, you risk going off on a tangent during the conversation. The lack of focus on the central issue will derail the conversation and sabotage your intentions.
2. Know your objective
What do you want to accomplish with the conversation? What is the desired outcome? What are the non-negotiables? What are the options that you want to have by the end of the conversation? Once you have determined this, plan how you will close the conversation. Do not end without clearly expressed action items. What are both agreeing to do? What support are you or they committed to provide? What obstacles might prevent these remedial actions from taking place? What do you both agree to do to overcome potential obstacles? Schedule a follow-up to evaluate progress and definitively reach closure on the issue at hand.
3. Adopt a mindset of inquiry
Spend a little time to reflect on your attitude toward the situation and the person involved. What are your preconceived notions about it? Your mindset will predetermine your reaction and interpretations of the other person’s responses, so it pays to approach such a conversation with the right mindset, which in this context is one of inquiry. Be open to hear first what the other person has to say before reaching closure in your mind. Even if the evidence is so clear that there is no reason to beat around the bush, you still owe it to the person to let them tell their story. A good leader remains open and seeks a greater truth in any situation. The outcome of adopting this approach might surprise you.
4. Manage the emotions
Most of us believe that emotions need to be left at the door, however this may be a traditional approach that is no longer valid in today’s diverse work environments. It is your responsibility as a leader to understand and manage the emotions in the discussion. What starts as an annoyance, for example, can move to anger and, in extreme cases, escalate to rage. You can avoid this by being mindful of preserving the person’s dignity and treating them with respect. Even if you totally disagree with them.
5. Be comfortable with silence
There will be moments in the conversation where a silence occurs. Do not rush to fill it with words. A moment of silence in the conversation allows you to hear what was said and lets the message sink in. A pause also has a calming effect and can help you connect better. If you are an extrovert, you are likely uncomfortable with silence, as you are used to thinking while you’re speaking. This can be perceived as not listening, not caring and controlling, especially if the other party is an introvert. Introverts want to think before they speak. Be curious and allow them their moment, it can often lead to a better outcome.
6. Preserve the relationship
A leader who has high emotional intelligence (EQ) is always mindful to limit any collateral damage to a relationship. It takes years to build relationships and trust with people and only minutes to destroy it. Think about how the conversation can fix the situation, without erecting an irreparable wall between you and the other person.
7. Be consistent
Ensure that your objective is fair and that you are using a consistent approach. For example, if the person thinks you have one set of rules for this person and a different set for another, you will be perceived as showing favouritism. Nothing erodes a relationship faster than perceived inequality. Employees have long-term memories of how you handled situations in the past. Aim for consistency in your leadership approach. A leader who is consistent is trusted because others do not have to second-guess where you stand on important issues such as culture, corporate and personal values, ethics and acceptable behaviours.
8. Develop your conflict resolution skills
Conflict is a natural part of human interaction. Managing conflict and difficult situations effectively is one of the vital skills of leadership. Have a few, proven phrases that can come in handy in crucial spots.
9. Watch your reaction to thwarting ploys
A common mistake when conducting a difficult conversation is how you handle thwarting ploys such as stonewalling, deflecting blame, sarcasm and accusing. The best advice is to simply address the ploy openly and sincerely. Disarm the ploy by labelling the observed behaviour.
10. Choose the right place to have the conversation
Calling people into your office may not be the best strategy. Sitting in your own comfort zone, behind your desk, shifts the balance of power too much on your side. Even simple body language, such as not crossing your arms, can carry a subtle message of your positive intentions. Consider holding the meeting in a neutral place such as a meeting room where you can sit adjacent to each other without the desk as a barrier. If you choose to meet in a public space, such as a café, be very cognisant of the issue at hand and how the other person might feel.