If I was to grade my strengths and weaknesses throughout my life having difficult conversations would rank pretty low. I certainly have had them, anywhere from telling people we were going to have to shut down their location to informing my Mom that my Dad would not be going home with us that night. At the same time I have avoided many I should have had.
Difficult conversations are hard. Normally they are about things we don’t want to talk about. They are hard because they involve another person or group of people. They are often filled with emotions and they not only affect the people involved but ripple to those that surround them. They are difficult because they matter.
The fact is that difficult conversations often do damage. These are not water cooler conversations about last nights game or who won Dancing with the Stars. They are about a person’s future. They are going to change a person’s life. From that moment in time things are going to be different.
As leaders we need to handle them with that understanding. This does not mean we should sugarcoat them or in any way not make sure that they are honest conversations. They must be conversations for which we prepare. That we have in place as many facts as possible to talk about. Ones where we are going to have a good understanding of what happened to get us to this point. And we are going to have an idea of what the results will be from the conversation. At the same time we can not block out that there is a person on the other side of the table and that someday that person might be us.
There are certain things we need to focus on when thinking about a difficult conversation we are preparing to have:
The Conversation is Personal: We may want to think it is just business at work or “not about you” at home but these conversations are personal. They are going to be emotional. In many cases there will be hurt and anger. And unless we want the damage to turn to an explosion we need to listen with empathy. We will need to listen with our mouth closed and allow the emotions to flow.
It is Not About Winning: In all honesty difficult conversations only have a winner if the conversation ends in what Stephen Covey call a “Third Alternative.” A place in which the results were better for both people. A rare happening in difficult conversations. If you go into a conversation with the goal of winning it will blow up.
Do not Assume: No matter how you try you will never know how a person will respond until they do. The only thing you can every assume about your plan for a difficult conversation is that it will not go as planned.
Start the Conversation by Learning: For me the best way I have found to start a Difficult Conversation is to ask questions. Asking open-ended questions is how you learn. It is also how you allow the other person to answer with as little emotion as possible. And when the questions you ask are based on an understanding of the facts in place the person you are speaking with may come up with the final answer by themselves. At one point in my career I investigated an issue between a team member and his Manager. That afternoon I sat with the team member and had in front of me five questions based on what I had learned. By the fifth question he told me that realized he was in the wrong job and gave his notice. He basically taught himself.
The first thing I learned in looking deeper into this important leadership skill is that the worst thing you can do is avoid a difficult conversation. At some point you will have to have it or one may be had with you. An avoided conversation does not get easier. Secondly, it will take all the people and communications skills you have for it end in a way both people can move forward. Third, how you handle this conversation will say a lot about you as a leader.
My last thought is this; in the end a difficult conversation is about treating people with respect. Tearing another person down and sending them away broken so you could look strong and powerful says much more about you than them. And remember that may be you someday.