Handling Difficult Conversations

While you may never have to fire anyone, there are all sorts of conversations that  you can have with a fellow employee that are going to be awkward and difficult for the both of you. It doesn’t have to be that way…provided that you ask the right questions.

4065012522_19cc36242a_oScott Miller at the Bleacher Report has a depressing story about how various coaches and managers were fired from their teams. That’s definitely not a conversation you want to have — and it’s probably a harder conversation for the person who’s doing the firing than it is for the person being fired. Fortunately, there are ways that you can manage those kinds of “difficult” conversations. You can’t ever make these conversations easy but you can make them productive.

Managing Yourself

The first step in having these kinds of conversations is internal: Before you start worrying about the other person’s reaction, you need to start monitoring your emotional state. You don’t want the conversation to end up like this:

Other person: “You seem upset.”
You: “I’M NOT UPSET!.”

You want to keep an eye on your emotions so that you can put yourself into the right emotional context…and that matters because it allows you to send the right message to the other person. The reality is that if your voice tone, body language, and facial expression send one message while your words send another, readers will ignore your words. Unless you’re a professional actor you probably can’t control those things so you need to manage your emotional state to allow the right messages to be sent.

Self-monitoring is a critical part of improving your emotional intelligence (as we cover in Learning Tree’s Emotional Intelligence Essentials 1-day bootcamp) and essential to ensuring that your facial expressions, voice tone, and body language send a message that matches your words.

The Conversation’s Goal

When you start the conversation, you need recognize that your goal is to improve the relationship with the other person and that this conversation — and its outcomes — is just a step on that path. The key to here is to be open to the idea that the other person can have something to contribute to those outcomes: don’t enter the conversation with the “right” answer predetermined (though, of course, you can certainly have your own opinion on how the conversation might end). 

After opening the conversation, asking any of these questions will help the both of you focus on the conversation’s goals and suggest that you both have something to contribute:

  • What are your best hopes from our conversation?
  • What is the end outcome you are trying to reach?
  • What will it look like when this is working well?

You’ll also need to turn up your empathy level. Empathy doesn’t mean that you have to agree with the other person; it does mean that you have to understand why the other person feels the way they do. Again, the best way to improve your empathy is to ask more questions rather than making assumptions about the other person’s motivations (“Why do you feel that way?” is just the most obvious question to ask). Understanding the roots of other person’s emotional reaction to the conversation will help you ensure that the conversation is moving towards a goal that makes sense to both of you.

Strategies and Tactics for Achieving Progress

However, it’s not unusual for a difficult conversation to reach an impasse because the people involved seem to have incompatible assumptions, beliefs, facts, or attitudes. As a strategy, you want to focus on your joint goals. Asking reframing questions can help with this.

Reframing a question gives you a way to look at the discussion from a different point of view. One method of reframing is to discuss problems and issues in terms of future outcomes (“Rather than go over what we’ve done in the past, how would we like to work in the future?”). Another option is to explore flexibility in what are normally assumed to be inflexible requirements (“What would happen if, instead of having a single, fixed delivery date, we instead delivered the project over a series of stages?”). A third choice is to change the focus of the discussion (“Before we continue to argue about these issues, what are the things that we do agree on?”).

All of these techniques mean that you have to pay attention to what the other person is contributing to the conversation. While the other person is talking you don’t want to think about your response — you want, instead, to empathically understand why the other person is saying that.

When You Respond

Of course, once it’s your turn to talk you’ll want to consider what you’re going to say and not shoot from the hip. You’ll need, therefore, to give yourself some time to think after the other person finishes speaking. One of your most useful tools for giving yourself time is to rephrase/paraphrase what the other person just said and repeat that back to them (“If I understand correctly, you’re saying …”). You’ll notice that this is another question (“If I understand…”). This tactic has three benefits in addition to giving you time to think:

  • Indicates to the other person that you value what they’re saying by taking the time to understand them
  • Reduces the chances for miscommunication by clarifying your understanding of the other person’s words
  • Often encourages the other person to talk more, giving you more insights into their state of mind

There other ways to give yourself time to think: take notes while the other person is talking and then finish those notes after the other person finishes; take a drink of water before you speak, or fill in with some stock phrase (“Thanks for bringing that up,” “That’s really interesting”). In fact, if you tell the other person that something they said is interesting it seems to me that they would expect you to stop for a minute and think about it.

In Scott Miller’s Bleacher Report article, he quotes Clint Hurdle (currently manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates) on how he was fired as manager for the Colorado Rockies:

I got a call at 8 o’clock in the morning from my general manager. He asked if I could come over and meet him at his house…We talked. We had a conversation. He told me reasons why. He asked me my thoughts. I shared my thoughts. He asked me how I wanted to handle the exit.

That’s almost a textbook example of how to handle a difficult conversation. In fact, Hurdle says that being fired set him up for “the best experience I’ve probably had” just three or four days after being fired. You probably can’t do as well (we discuss more tools and techniques in Learning Tree’s Developing Your Leadership Voice course) but your next “difficult” conversation can go much better than your last one…regardless of which side of the desk you’re sitting on.

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