Harry Nelson

Bad News to Share? Leading through Difficult Conversations

Leading through Difficult Conversations

Today is my first day back after a break from the office, and among other items on my “to do” list is a conversation with a co-worker that I don’t want to have.  By far, my least favorite part of leadership is being tasked with the unpleasant conversation. Giving difficult feedback is, for me, one of the hardest things to do.  It touches the places where I feel weakest and puts me in a role I don’t want to be in.

It’s tempting to put certain conversations off.  You avoid the unpleasantness.  The problem is that problems only get worse. Delay never helps.  I’ve come to see it as a false kindness to the person on the other end of the conversation, who often has little clue of how bad things really are.  As tempting as it to hold back and not be honest about a problem, this opens up the door to more dishonesty and, ultimately, to a build-up of anger and resentment.  In the worst cases, these blow up in a message that comes out the wrong way and makes the situation worse.

There was a time, a few years ago, when I was in a meeting terminating an attorney and I was a wreck, emotionally overwrought.  As we sat there, it became clear that I had been so soft and unclear with her over a year of growing frustration that she didn’t even understand my warnings.  I’ve grown and learned from that point that you’re not doing a person who is falling short any favor by being so gentle that they don’t get the message.  And it’s OK if not every relationship is forever. The “hire slow, fire fast” approach allows both employer and employee to move on.

So, as much as I don’t like to it, I’ve come to the view that having conversations sooner rather than later and doing them the right way is key.

Lately, I’ve started using a framework that my friend and mentor Sharon Rich shared with me, which breaks the process down into a series of steps:

  1. Plan and Map Out Possible Outcomes:  The first step is before the conversation itself:  taking time to plan what outcome you want or need to come out of the conversation, as well as what the possible options, solutions, or response are, if it goes the way you want or a different possible direction.
  2. Internally Note Intentions:  The net step, also before the conversation begins, Start by internally noting your actual intentions (to yourself).
  3. Begin with positive intention:  Start the conversation by expressing your positive intention, e.g. “What I want is for us to have a good working relationship.”
  4. Raise the issue of divergence:. Using the first person of what went wrong, describe the situation gently in  fact neutral way, e.g. “What I noticed/saw/heard was . . . “
  5. Describe your thoughts without claiming truth:   Next, staying in the first person, talk about what you were thinking, without blame, judgment, or criticism.
  6. Describe your thinking: Talk about the story you told yourself.  “I thought, “we’ve got to do this a different way” or “I felt worried about ….” – Do not let yourself be interruptedThe conversation is at a critical point and you cannot afford to be taken off track. Insist on “Let me just go through this and then I want to hear what you have to say.”
  7. Clarify your intention: Make clear what you want/intend for the person or the group: “I want/intend for us to be a team where we can get stronger by giving each other difficult feedback.”
  8.  Deliver your request: “I want us to ______.  Slow down. Use safe words, e.g. stop and reorient. It is critical that you deliver the specific action clearly.
  9. Then ask “What do you think?”  You need to know from the outset (Step 1 above) what the possible outcomes you are willing to consider were.  If the person goes in a direction that was not within those options, you need to bring them back to reality, gently but firmly.
  10. Plan for the future. 

I’ve been using this and find it very helpful. I picked up a copy of the book that I believe this approach is from, but haven’t gotten to it yet. I encourage anyone looking for more depth to check it out.  Let me know how it goes if you decide to try this approach.  Any other ideas?  What do you do for difficult conversations?

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