Why Difficult Conversations Don’t Have to Be Difficult
For several years I’ve used the phrase “You get better by doing.” Things that seemed so difficult the first few times you tried them get so much easier after you’ve done them a number of times. Whether it’s learning to play a musical instrument, a new sport, doing a new job, or virtually anything else, all become much easier the more you do them. You get better by doing.
Conversely, the less you do something, the poorer you get at it. If you play 50 rounds of golf a year and then only play once or twice the next couple of years, there’s no way you can be as good as you were before.
I think the same thing is happening with difficult conversations in the workplace. It has become far too easy to break bad news through an email or text message. As a result, more people than ever are having a tough time having a difficult conversation in person. After all, there are times you really do need to talk to people.
Here are the top four things you need to do to make difficult conversations easier.
Focus On What You Want
Before you start that difficult conversation, you need to do a few things to prepare.
Start by deciding what you want out of the conversation. What message are you trying to get across to the other person? Force yourself to think about one thing that you want to accomplish. One suggestion though – don’t get hung up on outcomes. Positive outcomes from difficult conversations are nice, but they’re really not the best measurement of the conversation. You can do everything right in the conversation and it still may not result in the outcome you wanted. That doesn’t mean you didn’t do an excellent job in leading the conversation.
Let’s use the example of a manager needing to speak to an employee about the employee arriving late for work too often. It would be great if your conversation led to him (I will use him rather than her) immediately changing his behaviour, but what if you did everything right in your difficult discussion and he still couldn’t get to work on time? That doesn’t mean you didn’t do well in the conversation. It means your employee has issues.
Decide what you want out of the difficult discussion, and in this case you likely want to let the employee know that showing up late isn’t acceptable and he needs to change his ways.
When you focus on what you want out of the conversation, it makes the rest of the planning much easier. It’s much like having a goal. When you decide what your goal is, it becomes much easier to decide what you need to do to accomplish the goal.
Know What You’re Going to Say Before You Say It
Once you know what you want out of the conversation then decide how you’re going to get there.
Decide what you want to say and the order you plan to say it in. Although you have a difficult conversation in front of you, there’s no reason you can’t spend as much time as needed to prepare. Put your thoughts together and do a bulletpoint list of what you want to say. Choose your words carefully because they can make a huge difference.
Start by coming up with an opening statement that’s related to the topic you want to bring up. Let’s use the example of the manager speaking to the employee who’s having a difficult time showing up on time. Don’t begin with a direct question such as “Why are you always late these days”? Start with an opening statement that references the way people at your office pride themselves on great teamwork. From there it would be easy to then start speaking about the employee’s habits.
Also spend time anticipating what the other person is going to tell you and decide what you’ll say in response. One tactic that can work really well is to use “bridges” to get you back to what you want to talk about. If the employee says “Mary shows up late too”, use a bridge to get back to what you want to speak about such as “This isn’t about Mary, it’s about you and the fact is you have been late almost every day.” Bridges can be very effective to keeping the conversation on track.
Execution is Everything
When you start the actual difficult conversation, be prepared to listen. Allow the other person to have their say as well, as long as it’s respectful. They might make a point that you hadn’t thought about, or make a suggestion that makes a lot of sense. You’re still the boss so your message will have to be respected. It will also be respected more if you allow the other person to speak freely.
Remember the one thing you want to get out of the discussion. That likely has nothing to do with making the employee feel bad or guilty – it likely relates to wanting to make them understand there’s a problem and they need to change behaviour. Taking some time to listen will pay big dividends.
Something else you want to do is build hope. Give the employee hope that whatever issue they’re facing they’ll be able to handle it. Use words such as “You’re a great employee. I know if you put a little more effort into getting to work on time you’ll be able to do it. Let me know what help I can give you.”
This puts the onus on the employee to make changes, but provides some encouragement and your offer to help will likely be appreciated too.
Document What Was Said
Somebody once used the line something to the effect of “One dull pencil is worth more than six sharp minds.” What it means is, something documented when it happens can be far more effective than a number of people trying to recall what happened weeks later.
It only takes a couple of minutes to recap the key points of the discussion. Put it in writing and if needed, share it with the employee so he has a copy of it too. This not only provides a record for what you thought was discussed, but it adds clarity for the other person as well. If they’re not sure about what was said, the written description should put an end to that. They may question the information, which would lead to greater clarity. If they don’t question it, then what’s written should stand.
Due to the fact that people generally don't like to have difficult conversations, it becomes easier to sugar coat certain parts of the discussion. While that makes it easier for the other person to swallow, it can lead to confusion. Even a person’s tone of voice can result in the other person not being able to comprehend the gravity of a situation, as an example. That’s another reason why putting it in writing is necessary.
One final thought – if we had to have a difficult conversation in the workplace at least once a day, imagine how good we would get at it? Fortunately we don’t have to go through that pain all the time.
When it does become necessary to have a difficult conversation, prepare for it properly and then execute. Afterwards you will feel a lot better than if you had sent an email.
It really can provide an empowering feeling, so give it a try. After all, doesn’t everyone say they want “open communication”?