Difficult conversations are an inevitable and necessary part of leadership and management.
But they can be a cause of great anxiety and worry.
And because of that, there can be a tendency to put them off and avoid them altogether.
A survey a few years ago showed more than 80 per cent of employees procrastinate on necessary but difficult conversations.
And some delayed them for six months.
That’s not healthy for the individual or the organisation.
So, how can your leaders better deal with difficult conversations?
It’s a subject we explore during our new online First Line Management training course.
And it is something we discussed when I caught up with Dan Boniface, one of the expert trainers at The BCF Group.
His game plan for difficult conversations starts with changing how we think about them.
“The first part of difficult conversations is to reframe it because ‘difficult conversations’ has negative connotations,” he said.
“Reframe it to a ‘challenging conversation’ or a ‘courageous’ or ‘brave’ one.
“That helps us get our mindset right for trying to deal with that situation and approach it positively.
“When you look at something from the mindset that it will be difficult, we set ourselves up to take a tough route and assume there will be barriers and hurdles to overcome.
“Whereas if they are just challenges, we can be more collaborative.
“You have to try and remove the fear and anxiety from these conversations.”
A difficult conversation might be about poor performance or behaviour. It could involve turning down requests or ideas from team members. Maybe it is developmental feedback or admitting that you have made a big mistake.
Many conversations could fall under the ‘difficult’ definition.
Does reframing the way we think about them work in every scenario?
Dan said: “I think it does. And it fits in with being well-prepared for these conversations.
“To do that, you need to understand your objectives. What is it both parties want to achieve?
“You are looking for a win-win outcome or no deal. Either both parties take something away from the conversation or – if you can’t reach an agreement – you walk away with no hard feelings.
“If we want to approach our manager, for example, because we want some extra time off, that might just be a courageous conversation where the worst that can happen is that they say no.
“If we are managing our team, we still need to be brave, but we must also consider the impact.
“If we try to protect our teams by not having these conversations, they may not be aware that performance or behaviour is not up to standard.
“So, the kinder thing to do is have that conversation so they can change their performance and behaviour.”
Because of the fear surrounding these conversations, leaders can go out of their way to try and make them feel more pleasant.
And this can result in the message becoming clouded by fluff.
Dan said: “Often with challenging conversations, we try to make the conversation feel nicer. We fluff it up.
“Sometimes that is to make us feel better about delivering bad news.
“But I think most people just want to be told the facts and the figures, so we can go away and try to do something with that information.
“In most cases, people are already aware they are underperforming. Or that their behaviour is not at the right standard.
“It shouldn’t come as a surprise to them that you need to have a challenging conversation. And because they are aware, it helps remove that ‘difficult’ connotation.
“The shock element has been taken away.”
It is also crucial organisations and leaders create a culture where difficult conversations don’t feel so difficult.
“Managers and leaders need to create a safe environment for people where they can speak openly and freely and discuss their problems and challenges,” Dan said.
“If they are not approachable and work in an autocratic way, it is harder for people to come to them and open up.
“As managers, we should want people to open up because we want to know all the good stuff and the tricky things that are happening. If we don’t know what’s happening, we can’t do anything about it.
“The more open we are, the more likely we are to be able to stop problems before they happen.”
One of the fears many of us have about these conversations surrounds the emotions they evoke.
Can you remain calm and composed? Are you feeling emotional or vulnerable?
What about the other person?
Emotional intelligence skills are crucial.
“Emotional intelligence is vital whenever you are dealing with people,” Dan said.
“And there are two parts to it.
“There is understanding our emotions and there is understanding other people’s emotions.
“So, we need to understand how we feel at any given moment, what triggers our emotions and how to control them.
“If you are in a difficult conversation, it is ok to say, ‘Can I just have a couple of minutes to reflect’ or ‘I need a couple of minutes to clear my mind’.
“Then you come back in a better mind frame.
“And, as a line manager, you need to recognise this in people you lead as well and understand their emotions.
“But the crucial point to remember is you cannot control their emotions.”
Emotional intelligence fits neatly with choosing the right time to hold the conversation.
We need to think about whether it is the right time to have the conversation.
Dan said: “If you are not in the right mindset or in control of your emotions, the conversation is unlikely to go how you want it to.
“And that can create more stress and anxiety.
“Do you need to have the meeting now? Could it be delayed by an hour?
“Is it better to have it next week so you have time to get your mindset right?”
But there are other factors to consider around timing.
Dan added: “If you are a manager and need to tell your team some bad news, is Friday afternoon the best time? They are going to have the whole weekend to stew on it.
“Now, if it is about someone’s performance and behaviour, maybe it is a good time because you are giving them space to reflect.
“So, you need to think about finding a time that is the kindest and will have the biggest impact on the other person or team.
“Let’s say you send someone an email late Friday afternoon saying you want to see them in your office first thing Monday. They could spend all weekend worrying about what you will say when it may be that you just want to go through this month’s report.
“If you need to plan a meeting in advance, tell them what it is about. Clear communication is crucial.”
Empathy is a crucial part of difficult conversations having successful outcomes.
“Empathy is huge when working with people,” Dan said.
“Everything you do should start with empathy. But don’t confuse it with sympathy.
“Sympathy is pity. Empathy is understanding.
“So, seek first to understand before you try to be understood.
“This allows us to take in the other person’s perspective and consider how they feel.
“And then we can react to that and look to get our points across.
“It could be we are aligned in our thinking. If not, we enter into negotiation about that target, extra holiday, sale – whatever it might be.”
You might think silence in a difficult conversation is not a good sign.
But silence is a part of how we talk. All conversations have natural periods of silence.
And during difficult conversations, you need to embrace them.
“Use the power of silence in these conversations,” Dan said.
“As humans, we feel we need to fill the void.
“So, if we ask a question and stay silent, someone will fill the gap.
“This approach takes the pressure off you. But you must be comfortable with the silence, which takes practice.
“And it puts the emphasis on others, empowers them and makes them feel good because they can have their say.
“Listen to what they tell you. Think about how it aligns with your thoughts and then decide whether you need to say what you wanted to get across.”
Practising this skill is vital.
“It is something I have had to work quite hard on over the years,” said Dan.
“When I’m training, and ask a question, my instinct is to jump in with the answer.
“But that’s not empowering.
“It is much better to let the question sit for 30 seconds – and that feels like a long time. But someone will say something. And nine times out of ten, it is along the right route.
“And then your job as a leader is to guide the conversation along the right path.”
One of the main ways a difficult conversation can be derailed is if the other person is in denial.
They reject the information being put forward or perhaps claim it is untrue.
How can leaders manage this situation?
“If someone is in denial, I would take a coaching approach and ask questions first,” Dan said.
“So, if the conversation is about performance, I’d ask how they thought their performance is going, what is going well, what is not going well, what could be better and what they find challenging.
“This opens the conversation and gets the thoughts flowing.
“When they start speaking, most people will recognise performance issues in themselves.
“If they don’t, we can still guide the conversation with questions – ‘in this particular situation, what was your approach? What was your plan? What was your gut instinct telling you?’.
“If we can get them talking about it, they are more likely to make changes to their performance – it is their buy-in and motivation rather than a manager dictating what they should do.”
What happens if you can’t reach an agreement through the conversation?
Dan said: “If you don’t get the outcome you are hoping for, you need to be comfortable with it.
“As a manager, you don’t have to take on the other person’s view or objective. If they are not aligned with your thinking, don’t be dismissive.
“You want people to come to you with ideas. But you can’t take on all of them.
“You can say something like, ‘Thanks for your ideas – I don’t think it is right for the business now, but let’s revisit it in six months’.
“As long as we are open about it, we are creating that right environment.”
You may not reach an agreement, but you could emerge with some actions.
Dan said: “What will you or the other person do after the conversation? What is the first step?
“What will they change or do differently?
“Try to get a commitment or buy-in from them, and then you can move forward.”
You can learn more about managing difficult conversations on our new online First Line Management training course, designed to give new or inexperienced managers a firm foundation to start their management career.
Featuring videos, downloads and knowledge check questions at every stage of your learning, our online learning option is perfect for those who can’t take time away from the office. Click here to find out more.
The BCF group has been helping organisations develop their talent, inspire their people and overcome obstacles and challenges for the past 25 years.
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