How To Have Difficult Conversations, Part I

How To Have Difficult Conversations, Part I

Sometimes we realize there’s a problem—e.g., a performance issue or signs that a project will fail.

We all know from experience that speaking up about it immediately is better than kicking the can down the road. Given that, why are suboptimal situations like these so often not spoken about?

Well, it might seem safer to say nothing, even if you’re a manager. Especially if there are high stakes, we may have an emotional reaction about it (acknowledged or not) and perceive a “threat”, so avoidance of the whole issue seems smart. 

But it generally isn’t. (See my post The Costs Of Staying Silent And Hoping For The Best to understand why)

The solution, rather, is to develop knowledge, skills and practice in holding “difficult” conversations with people, which leads to confidence. Ideally, the boss will model this, with everyone else also learning it and holding each other accountable to carry it out.

So, how do we bring up problems we’ve spotted, or give “negative feedback” to someone, in a way that feels safe and will build bridges? There are 4 steps.

Step 1: Establish the right backdrop for success!

I’m a huge proponent for an open feedback culture in companies, because it normalizes frequent communication where everyone is safe to speak up (no matter who they are and what position they’re in).

A direct benefit of this openness and frequency is that it doesn’t seem like a big deal to have any particular talk. There’s regular back-and-forth communication about all levels of things, and plenty of praise too, so when the boss asks to have a word with someone, no one feels like they’re being called to the principal’s office.

To set things up for success in daily work life and to create the best context for feedback of all kinds:

  • Strive to model and maintain regular and intentional communications (an open feedback culture).
  • Create an environment where making mistakes is OK, and talking about it is even better! (Yep, this starts at the top.)
  • Know your people and know what’s going on. Understand cultural and individual differences. And pay attention.

I’m not saying these things are easy, but they are simple and doable, with time and determination, and will pay off.

When you have a specific “difficult” conversation you need to have, it’s on to Step 2: Preparation.

We want to make sure we’re objective, clear on how we feel, and can formulate comments that relate to a specific situation (not generalizations), mentioning specific behaviors and the impacts of those behaviors.

We don’t want anyone to get defensive or feel personally attacked… they will stop listening and start defending. Rather, we want them to be able to integrate the feedback so they can self-correct and feel OK about it. 

Try this process:

  • Zoom out. What actually happened / what’s the situation, objectively? What would a camera on the wall record? Remove assumptions about people’s thoughts/attitudes/reasons. Just the facts.
  • What was / is the impact, objectively?
  • What is your personal role in the situation, if any? In either case, how do you feel about it?
  • What would you like to happen? If you want to see a particular behaviour going forward, what would that look like? Define success.
  • Based on all the above, what message do you want to share and why is it important?

Yes, you have to invest some time and thought in this preparation. But better now than later.

For extra credit, review and practice what’s you’re going to say, and how, with someone who’s not involved.

Click here to read Part II!