Anyone who plans on having a big career has to accept that difficult conversations are a fact of work. You’ll be the recipient of them from time to time, which may make you feel vulnerable and even upset, and you will also have to take the lead on such conversations with others.
See all parts in this series here.
For leaders, it’s your ability to have difficult conversations fairly, courageously and eloquently that will really set you apart.
Some of us will put off these difficult conversations, hoping we can simply avoid them or that the situation will solve itself, with time. But we also know this procrastination and avoidance will simply make the problem worse, or even spiral beyond our control.
For emerging leaders, having a number of tools at your disposal for handling difficult conversations will be an invaluable asset, and will help you avoid dysfunction in your team.
Knowing what to do will help you solve the situation as quickly and painlessly as possible, having the courage and conviction to take it on.
The women we’ve spoken to for this playbook all have plenty of experience with difficult conversations. They know that confronting conversations are made easier by approaching them in a constructive way.
The following plays will help you stay prepared for any difficult conversation, and also to plan for those you have coming up.
Plan and know the desired outcomes
If you know you’re about to enter a difficult conversation, then go in with a plan. Know exactly what the problem is that you’re seeking to address, and consider a number of desired outcomes you’d like from the conversation. Open yourself up to being flexible and adaptable during the conversation, while still holding firm on some of your desired outcomes and in getting your point across. While it’s unlikely a difficult conversation will go according to any set plan, having a solid idea on what you’re trying to communicate will help.
Start the conversation by stating its purpose
Once you know your desired outcomes and have your facts ready, kickstart the conversation by stating its purpose – and if you don’t know exactly what this is, then you’re not as prepared as you should be. Be objective and to the point, but also use the opportunity to reassure the individual you’re speaking to and to also state something positive about their work or contribution. Let them know you’re there to help solve the situation.
Being clear about your values, vision and purpose can provide underlying guidance during difficult conversations. Knowing yourself will help you stay on track of the key points of the conversation. It will also help you stay true to the values that are essential to you, and to seeing the difficult things that need to be communicated as being about business reaching its goals, rather than anything personal. Finally, be aware of your physical reactions, such as body language you know you revert to when in a defensive mode, and aim to adjust these accordingly.
Constant communication will help you avoid some difficult conversations
Constant communication is a great first step for avoiding difficult conversations. It minimises the chances of issues festering and spiralling out of control, by seeing them simply dealt with as they come up. Make communication a priority, no matter how busy your to-do list.
Separate facts from emotion
Facts are everything in difficult conversations. They enable you to put emotions, personal feelings and differences aside in order to stick to the issue. Facts enable you to put together a case that objectively outlines your perspective, free from personal attacks and unnecessary language that can inflame the situation.
Listen to the other person
It’s a conversation, not a monologue. You need to be prepared to hear the other side of the conversation. Listen to their answers and acknowledge what they’ve said or their view of the situation. Repeat it back to them if necessary: ‘I understand what you’re going through; that must be difficult’. Ask them for solutions and ideas on how they can move forward. But still maintain your courage and conviction in seeking a resolution to the problem and ensuring the conversation does not get twisted so much that it’ll only lead to another difficult conversation.
Don’t fill the silence
Once you’ve stated your position – your facts and whatever else needs to be said – it can be tempting to fill the silence that may follow from the other side with yet more words. This can lead to rambling, even to apologising, and making excuses for the other person. Use silence as a tool and take deliberate and intentional steps to stop talking, no matter how awkward the dead air feels. This silence provides an opportunity for the other person to consider their response and state their own case.
A difficult conversation may see you learning about an issue that stems beyond the workplace; for example, a team member that’s underperforming may outline difficulties they’re having in their marriage or elsewhere. Be prepared to learn and listen, and offer compassion and support in response. While you have a set intention for the difficult conversation, you should also ultimately want the best possible outcome for the person on the other side of the table, especially if they are a team member. It helps to take positives into the conversation, to outline what they are doing well and the good things you have observed. Be respectful and patient, and open to walking in the other person’s shoes.
Consider the future
Ensure your difficult conversation offers a perspective on the future. What can be done differently? What suggestions can you make for improvements? How can you move forward? What tips and advice can you offer? Address these questions in your conversation, but also enter it prepared with some ideas and solutions that will help. Your aim is to be constructive.