4 ways to structure difficult conversations

My approach has been quite simple- tackle problems head on- simple, but it may not be right.

Obviously in the behavioural style I’m in “high D mode”, and while this has worked, sort of, for me, it may not necessarily the best approach for you… or those who you have to have a difficult conversation with.  The most difficult business conversations are easily those related to people, their behaviour, motivations and impact on or reactions to others.

I’d much prefer to have a discussion about why sales are down 25% rather than why a person lacks motivation.  But there are times when we all need to have these tough conversations, so here are 4 tips on preparing for them.  For middle managers, it’s important to have the right attitude before having these conversations. According to Author Marnie Green, there are four critical mindsets that every leader should embrace:

1. Start with their behaviour

Don’t let your or their emotions get in the way. Take a planned approach. Before the discussion, identify the problems you’d like to discuss and then during the conversation explain how the employee’s behaviour affects you, the team, the business and performance. Don’t procrastinate, plan: set a time for the discussion and stick to it.

Rather than telling your challenging team member what they should stop doing, try to focus on what you positively expect from them instead;  higher level of production, or a faster response rate or higher levels of quality. Whatever it is you expect, say this calmly and clearly and never let your own attitude toward the employee get in the way of professional communication.

Finally, in deciding to start a difficult conversation, before you get engaged in a discussion its important to determine whether the issue you have with your employee is a personal pet peeve or something that actually affects the work environment.

Examples of difficult conversations

– explaining why someone isn’t getting a promotion

– confronting repeatedly unacceptable behaviour

– providing honest feedback on poor performance

– sharing tough decision outcomes

– discussing taboo areas like inappropriate dress or personal hygiene

– acknowledging a mistake before its caught by someone else

– firing someone,

Review your language to focus on I statements, rather than “you” statements. Language that uses “you” tends to be ineffective as it puts the other person on the defensive and the discussion becomes a you versus them discussion. Try to use “I” as in these examples

Ineffective; You are constantly asking for exceptions when it comes to proper documentation Consider changing to I see the documentation procedures being sidestepped, and I want to discuss with you how we can make it better. I would like to begin meeting with you once a week to identify specific problems and brainstorm solutions.

Ineffective; You are constantly late and unprepared for meetings. Consider changing to I’ve noticed your meetings are not as effective as other team members and I want to discuss how we can improve them. What do you think is important for a good meeting?


2. Remove discussions about Judgment

During the conversation hold your personal feeling and judgment in check and focus on the performance issue you have identified instead. To change an employee’s behaviour, focus on specific examples that you have observed.  Avoid hearsay, and rumour- you have to focus on what you have observed personally. Avoid starting the conversation with value judgements like ‘I don’t think you care,’ it won’t get you anywhere with the other person, because they’re immediately on the defensive.

For example, instead of asking, “Are you overwhelmed? I know your work hasn’t been as good as before,” say, “I noticed the quality of your work has changed. Is this the case?”

Focus on making your messages clear.

Not clear; You didn’t present that topic well.  Clear; I would have found more detail to be helpful in your presentation.

Not clear; You need to improve your communication skills. Clear; Spend more time listening and paraphrasing the clients needs back to them.

Not clear; You have a poor attitude. Clear; Try showing more enthusiasm for this project to your team members.

Not clear; Your work is not professional. Clear; I think if you spent more time proofreading and reviewing your work before presenting to clients it would give a better impression.


3. Focus on their Solutions

The challenge we all face is how to structure the discussion to ensure the result is how we desire but done in a sensitive way. We need to be direct, rather than indirect- as indirect can often miss the point. With indirect communication, you think you’ve communicated your views while the other person is unclear why the conversation was had. You also need to be sensitive of the other persons feelings- rather than ignore sensitivities. This direct and sensitive is the perfect approach for communicating in difficult situations.

Having clearly established the lack of performance, the savviest leaders allow team members to come up with their own solutions. You can do this by asking questions that will lead to a solution both of you can agree on that your team member comes up with and ‘owns’.

Once you’ve both identified and discussed specific behaviours, ask them why they think they’re adopting these behaviours. For example, say, “Why do you think you haven’t been speaking up during team meetings?” or “What do you think has been different between last month compared to this month?” Enable them to volunteer their challenges and in so doing set the stage for them to determine the best solution for them, and you.

Here are some examples of different styles of messages;

Direct and Insensitive; You have a problem not pulling your weight here and you have to change

Indirect and Sensitive; Is there any chance there’s something here you’re not seeing?

Direct and Sensitive; Its part of my job to point our problems in order to help the team and ensure we’re as effective as possible. Those problems include making sure everyone in the team is contributing, and I would like now to figure out how we can make you a more effective contributor

Direct and Insensitive; People don’t like you you have to get better at working with others

Indirect and Sensitive; Have you thought about how well you interact with others?

Direct and Sensitive; Working well with other departments is a key to our success. I’ve received feedback that other people are having troubles working with you and we need to explore how to address that.


4. Pass them the Ownership

Once you’ve had the objective conversation, got them to discuss why this situation has arisen. This isn’t your problem anymore, its theirs, and how they own and manage their response will enable you to easily decide whether they remain and contribute, or whether you encourage them to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Through these conversations, you want to help the employee feel a sense of personal ownership over this behaviour and a capacity to change it, in a sustainable way. Giving the initiative for the solution gives your team member a greater sense of control and responsibility. That’s why asking questions — and getting feedback from your team member — is the smartest way to go. You certainly can troubleshoot, but you don’t always have all the answers.

Rather, I typically find, once the behaviour has be highlighted in a positive objective environment, the team member probably knows the most reasonable, innovative solution that benefits everyone. You can help facilitate this by continually making expectations and goals clear and ensuring these expectations and goals are consistent and by having regular brief objective performance conversations.

I believe the foundation of successful businesses is trust- and trust between a manager and a team member is paramount to this. Create trust by having regular open and honest feedback discussions. Create trust by being consistent and predictable. Be objective and don’t let your personality stand in the way of you being a great manager.

I know you all dread those challenging conversations, what tips do you have to share with us?


Credit for some ideas and approached from Marnie Green here