No matter how you feel about facing conflict, all leaders must be prepared for hard conversations. Telling an employee they won’t be getting that raise, addressing a challenge within a nonprofit board, resolving an issue with a client, disciplining poor performance . . . tough conversations happen in any professional setting. Your responsibility is to learn how to balance grit and grace as you have these hard conversations.
As British Novelist Phyllis Bottome said, “There are two ways of meeting difficulties. You alter the difficulties, or you alter yourself meeting them.” Prepare to meet conflict head-on with the perspective of a leader. Challenge yourself to take one of the steps below and you’ll be prepared to navigate even the most difficult conversations.
1. Don’t delay crucial conversations
There’s a temptation sometimes to wait until a formal performance appraisal to bring up challenging topics. But when you put off the delivery of tough news, you’re doing the recipient a disservice. Put yourself in their shoes: if you’re stumbling in an area of your job, wouldn’t you want to know right away? The sooner we know about a shortcoming, the easier it is to course correct.
Put yourself in their shoes: if you’re stumbling in an area of your job, wouldn’t you want to know right away?
Bringing up a difficult topic as soon as the problem arises also simplifies the conversation. For example, if a colleague has been tardy to team standups several times in a row, bring it up right away while it’s a small problem — and before he arrives late to your big client proposal meeting.
2. Keep the message clear
Handling hard conversations well begins with knowing their purpose. Too often, the purpose of a conversation gets lost if you approach the conversation indirectly. In other words? Don’t dance around things.
Workplace expert Ashira Prossack says, “Difficult conversations become even more difficult when the delivery is muddled.” We can often be indirect without meaning to, under the guise of being nice or not wanting to hurt any feelings. But from a long-term perspective, it’s more kind and more gracious to be clear and specific about what’s happening.
It’s more kind and more gracious to be clear
Before you begin a difficult conversation at work, ask yourself, “What is the main message of the conversation?” This is what you need to make abundantly clear to yourself and to the person you’ll be having the conversation with.
3. Provide proof
Here’s another area in which it’s helpful to do your homework ahead of time. If this is your employee’s first disciplinary meeting, or an interaction with a stakeholder that may take them by surprise, it can be helpful to provide proof. Why aren’t they getting a raise? Why is their performance review poor this year?
When you can deliver facts, you add professionalism to the conversation: armed with the facts, you’ll help mitigate emotions. Furthermore, pointing to facts eliminates concern about subjectivity. It’s not personal; it’s business.
Armed with the facts, you’ll help mitigate emotions.
Take the time to gather specific details that illustrate the problem. For example, if you’re having a conversation about a lack of professionalism, you can outline frequent absences or projects left incomplete. This also makes it easier to provide a pathway for improvement.
4. Set a positive tone
Yes, there is a way to make a hard conversation positive — and it begins from the moment you invite a colleague to talk. Speak in a private setting (no hallway sidebars), and allow ample time. If possible, chat towards the end of the day. Because let’s face it, no one wants to transition immediately from a tough conversation into a sales meeting.
Speak in a private setting (no hallway sidebars), and allow ample time.
HR Specialist Amanda Novakovic recommends starting a conversation with, “How’s everything going?” or “I’d like to talk about some feedback we’ve received about your behavior.” Negativity will lead straight to worst-case scenario thinking, and the person you’re speaking with may be so worried they don’t listen to the rest of what you’re saying. Think about what you can do to keep things positive and hopeful.
5. Allow for questions
You can bet that as soon as you deliver unexpected news, your colleague will have a hundred different thoughts running around in their heads. “What does this mean? Am I going to lose my job? Don’t they appreciate what I do at all?” By providing an opportunity to ask questions, you can help to ease some of this confusion.
Also recognize that they may need time to process what you’ve shared.
When you can see your colleague’s brain start to turn with questions, simply say, “I know this is [surprising/difficult/challenging] to hear. What questions do you have that I can help answer?” Also recognize that they may need time to process what you’ve shared. So make it clear that your door is always open for future conversations.
6. Wrap with a call to action
Instead of hiding bad news between a compliment sandwich, consider adding encouragement with a call to action. Are you taking an employee off a certain project? Tell them what you want to see in them next time. Trying to make things better with a disagreeable colleague? Suggest a solution. Ending with a game plan is empowering and encouraging.
Tell them what you want to see in them next time.
After a hard conversation, your co-workers are likely to think, “So, what’s next?” Before you meet to have the conversation, think of a call to action that will put them on the right track.
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