How to have a difficult conversation

I’m fast coming to the conclusion that the ability to have an effective, yet difficult conversation is one of the most important skills a leader can master. Business needs and deserves managers and leaders who can be courageous enough to tackle the giving and receiving of feedback, as without such conversations performance management issues are not addressed, behaviour is left unchecked and team relationships can go awry. What we hear is similar in most organisations, being:

a)              I’m not comfortable with hard conversations;

b)              I don’t know how to give and receive feedback in a way that is accepted and moves people forward.

The good news is this is a learned skill, and if you normalise this practice, make feedback a priority and learn to give it in a way that inspires growth and engagement, it’s fixable. But accept that it’s not comfortable, neither should it be, for, as Brene Brown says in her great book, Daring Greatly, “If leaders expect real learning, critical thinking and change, then discomfort should be normalised.”

So, if you have ostrich-like tendencies and live in hope that the issue will go away/someone else will have the conversation/you can delegate it out/it’s not that important/they’ll leave before it gets crucial, or any other excuse, here are some simple steps to getting started!

Step 1:

Before the difficult conversation, prepare yourself. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do I want to achieve here? (For me? For them? For the relationship?)
  • If I really wanted these things, how would I behave?

Know your intent and set the appropriate emotional state. Ensure you have time for this and don’t expect to rush the conversation.

Step 2:

Share the Facts. The more specific the better. It also needs to be something you have observed – second hand information frustrates people because they cannot effectively challenge it. Examples help. Keep it free from judgement and interpretation.

Step 3:

Tell your Story. What do these facts make you think and feel? (“When you say or do this, it makes me think ‘x’, which makes me feel ‘y’”). Remember, this is just your interpretation of the facts and allows room for discussion.

Step 4:

Listen to their Story. Ask for their perspective. What do they think is going on? How do they feel about it? What do they believe the impact of this is?

Be careful at this stage to listen without judgement and try to keep your body language neutral. Keep endeavouring to make it safe to talk.

Step 5:

Encourage Action. Move from emotions to conclusions and brainstorm mutual strategies for action. Invent mutual purpose. There will be times at this stage when a mutual agreement is not possible and you will have to state the behaviours you wish to see, laying the ground for the next conversation.

Good Luck!