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Having Difficult Conversations

We’ve all been there - worrying about a conversation we need to have because we know it could be a difficult one, maybe because we think the person we need to talk to won’t like what we have to say, or because the subject is charged with emotions.  Having these conversations is something we need to do as a leader, and something we end up doing, even more, when we are leading change.  So how can we get comfortable having these uncomfortable conversations?

Are you ready?  Its time to get curious and make some choices!

Facing a Difficult Conversation

I remember the first time I had to have one of those classically really difficult conversations for real.  I’d practised them on training courses and knew all about just how wrong a role play telling someone they smelled and needed to improve their hygiene could go, so how was I possibly going to cope telling someone I was firing them?  

There were good reasons for the firing and I knew it was right for the team, for the business and for the person I was going to fire, but I still lost a lot of sleep and spent ages going over things in my head.  I’d talked it through with my boss who was great at supporting me, I’d worked out just about every possible scenario, and some pretty impossible and very improbably ones too.  I chickened out once too!

When I did have the conversation, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected - I got straight to the point and told them I wanted to talk about their job and asked her how they thought it was going.  Much to my surprise they burst into tears and said they wanted to leave but didn’t want to let anyone down.  Imagine my relief when I was able to tell them I could make that happen for her!

Some conversations will always be difficult conversations

Now not every difficult conversation is about losing a job, and not every conversation is that easy once it’s started but there are some things we can do to help ourselves get good results from all of them.

Even having said that, I think it should add that even when we become practised at these difficult conversations there are some that we will always be anxious about having.  Certainly, whenever we are talking about redundancies, job losses or firings, and possibly when we have to give feedback that we think someone will take personally or have to tell them their pet project is being stopped, we are always going to have an anxious moment beforehand.

And that IS a good thing, even if it doesn’t feel it at the time.  Being empathetic towards the people we work with is something we are striving for, we build relationships with the people we work with based on it, so naturally, these conversations are hard.  That anxiety helps us remember how important it is to get these conversations right and to take them seriously.

There are two main things we are going to look at, getting ready for these conversations and then what we need to do during them

Getting Ready For Difficult Conversations

Being prepared makes all the difference to how the conversations go and spending time getting ready is a much better use of our energy than spending time worrying about the conversation.

So what can we do to get ready for these difficult conversations?

There are three key questions for us to consider as we do our preparation, and on one level they seem simple but the more curious we get about our answers the more prepared we will be.  

I often get asked how long people should spend answering these questions, and that is a difficult question to answer because it depends on your experience, how challenging the situation is going to be and how severe the impact of the conversation might be.  Giving someone feedback on some work can be a difficult conversation, but it probably won’t be as difficult as telling someone you are making them redundant.

Question 1

The first question is What Really is The situation.  You need to get curious about the facts, look at the situation from different perspectives, gathering all the information you can.  As well as the facts about a situation, looking at the impact it had on you, the team and the business.  I would also challenge you to consider how you are reacting to the situation, what assumptions are you making, are they valid?  The same goes for prejudices and any personal hot buttons that this situation is pressing.

Question 2

Secondly, I suggest asking yourself what you want from the conversion, get curious about the different possible outcomes, and be really clear what could happen next and what you can and can’t do in the different circumstances.  Doing this thinking in advance of the meeting allows you to focus fully in the meeting rather than having to work these things out as you go along.

Question 3

The final questions is what do you need to do to be ready for this conversation.  There are two areas to explore with this question.  Firstly there are the practicalities, things like when and where should I have the conversion, do I need to book a time or a meeting place, how much privacy do we need, is it OK to do it over zoom,  is there any paperwork I need and things like that.  

Secondly, there is the more literal interpretation of the question, what do you need to be ready for the meeting, how are you going to make sure you are able to focus, to listen and to stay in control of your emotions during the meeting.  You will know what is going to work best for you, be that clearing your diary just before and having a walk, be that making sure you are earring well, meditating, taking a moment to practice mindfulness, or having coffee or whatever it is that gets you mentally in the right place to be the leader you want to be in the meeting.    

For me, the hardest part of these conversations is getting started so I like to work out word for word how I’m going to open the conversation and practice them over coffee just ahead of the meeting.  

Your values really are going to be on show in how you behave in this meeting so make a conscious choice and demonstrate them well.

But What If I didn't Know This Conversation Was Going To Happen?

Being ready for the conversation is great, if you know it’s happening, but what if you don’t? 

Well from my perspective you can use the questions above during the meeting too, establishing the facts first, and thinking about possible outcomes and making sure you are being the leader you want to be.  

Remember if someone comes to you with something difficult you don’t have to have all the answers immediately.  You can focus on listening and collecting the facts and then tell the other person you need time to think about it and that you will get back to them. Obviously you need to make sure you do.

This keeps your relationship in a strong place and shows you respect how important the subject is.  It also means you can check other peoples perspective about the situation and consider other options and the wider implications of a situation.

What To Do When You Are Having A Difficult Conversation

As we talked about getting ready for these difficult conversations we talked a bit about how you want to be in the meeting, and what else do we need to keep in mind as we have these difficult conversations.  Every difficult conversation, but its very nature is going to be different so generalisations about what to do beyond the start of the conversation are pretty meaningless, so instead, we are going to focus some key behaviours that are going to help you.

First up I would suggest getting straight to the point.  Your team members probably know when there is a problem and they may well have noticed you getting ready or even being a bit distracted, so let’s make sure we treat people with the respect and dignity they deserve by getting straight to the point.  And as I said it is totally OK to write yourself a script for that opening bit and to have notes to keep you on point and making sure you cover everything.  We are looking to get our point across clearly here rather than prove how great our memory is.

Where it’s appropriate, having told the person what you are going to be talking about in this conversation, asking them for their views before you go any further is very helpful, what’s their view on the project you are about to cancel, what do they know about the situation the company finds itself in, how do they think they are performing at work.  Then listen - what you hear next will help you know how to make your points in a way that makes sense to the person you are talking to.  If their view of things is very different to yours you know you have a different explanation to give than when I asked how her job was going and they told me they hated it and wanted to leave!

Through the whole conversation make sure you are really listening to understand the other person’s perspective and acknowledging their points.  We need to approach these meetings with a curious mind.

Staying calm and focused just on the conversation you are having, not being distracted by your mobile phone, your email or other thoughts in your head will also really help.

And finally, remember it’s OK to adjourn the meeting, consider what you have discovered before taking the meeting to the conclusions it needs to get to.

Summary & Taking Action

When we are leading change, leading in a rapidly changing world or when there is lots of uncertainty every conversation has the potential to be a difficult one. As we all know those circumstances all create a level of fear and with that comes a heightened sensitivity and emotions are closer to the surface than sometimes.  When we are experiencing this heady cocktail, we tend to approach each conversation with our defences up, making it even harder for us as leaders to manage the conversation and get great outcomes.

In this episode, we have looked at why some conversations are harder than others and then thought about how we can make sure we are ready for them by considering three main areas and answering three questions, What really is the situation? What do I want from the conversation? and what do I need to do to be ready for the conversation?  Then we talked about approaching these difficult conversations with a curious mind, and how we need to be in these meetings and making the choice to be the leader we want to be.  The things I share are based on my experiences and some will be more relevant to you than others - it’s up to you to decide what you take and apply from this podcast.  That’s what curious choice leadership is all about - getting curious and building our understanding then evaluating what we find and making choices about what’s right for us and our business.  

And the questions I would like to leave you with are:

Having listened to this Podcast what are you going to do differently next time you are facing a difficult conversation?

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