We all have to have tricky conversations from time to time. At work, they might start with ‘Have you got five minutes for a quick chat?’ (usually at 5.25pm on a Friday!); at home, ‘We need to talk’ might be the opener.
Last week, I was working with a client – let’s call him Steve – on this very subject. He’s been managing his team for about nine months now and it’s been a pretty turbulent time for the organisation. He’s been on the receiving end of some difficult conversations and has had to initiate several too. He was looking for a better way to handle them.
To work out what a good difficult conversation would look like, first I asked Steve to list all the ways a difficult conversation could be truly terrible. Here are just some of his thoughts:
- The wrong time
- The wrong place
- Off the cuff
- Failure to allow the other person time to process the information
- Too personal
- Failure to listen
- Angry tone
Having established that, Steve could then identify the elements he needed to consider each time he faces a difficult conversation:
Pick the right time and place
The office canteen is not the place for a tricky conversation. Neither is it a good idea to initiate one as your colleague is putting on his coat and heading off to collect his children from school. Steve is aware of his team’s commitments outside work and they share a diary so he can see when they are in meetings. He has resolved to book meeting rooms and to choose times which will allow the conversation to take place without either party anxiously clock-watching.
Raising a tough issue is not a ‘oh, I’m glad I bumped into you – I just wanted to chat to you about …’ kind of thing. Steve will make sure he’s thought through the issues, made notes of what he’d like to get across and what questions he’d like to ask. When it’s appropriate, he will give the other party advance warning of the subject in order to allow them to plan ahead too.
Allow time for processing the subject
Following on from planning ahead, Steve noted that he can’t always give the other party the subject matter in advance. In all cases, but particularly in this case where the news may come as a surprise or be difficult to hear, Steve realised that it’s essential he allows the other party time to digest what’s being said. He admits that he is sometimes rather nervous about his team member’s reaction so he just keeps on talking, hoping to somehow make it easier. He’s noticed that this can lead to his colleague feeling overwhelmed and almost switching off from the conversation. He will either slow down the pace of the conversation (and stay quiet) or in some circumstances, offer a break in proceedings and they can pick up again later.
Allow time for questions and to listen effectively
Steve said that he sometimes felt tempted to rush his way through delivery of the uncomfortable conversation so he could wrap it up and move on and acknowledged that this made it rather a one-sided process. Just as it’s necessary to allow time for processing, it’s essential his colleague has time to ask questions and seek clarification. Likewise, he needs to take time to actively listen to his team member and to do so with an open mind.
Stay calm and professional
Groucho Marx (probably) said ‘If you speak when angry, you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.’ An angry conversation is rarely a helpful one. Like most of us, Steve has unfortunately had experiences at work and outside work which have made him angry and, again like most of us, he’s wanted to address the matter there and then. ‘That’s when it gets too personal. I focus on the person, not the behaviour; I say things I don’t mean; I generalise and worst of all, I get shouty. It never helps.’ To counteract this, Steve’s going to count to ten (or a hundred!), and then work his way through this list to help him make a difficult conversation as effective as possible.
How about you?
Today’s pebble for you to consider: how will you handle difficult conversations better?
What do you think?
Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching.
If you’d like to make progress in your work and life, email me and let’s have a conversation about how we can work together.