How to get good outcomes from difficult conversations at work

Preparation is key to getting good outcomes from difficult conversations at work

Some work situations need delicate handling but, as long as you assess the situation, plan what you want to say and are prepared to listen, you can achieve good outcomes from difficult conversations at work.

Sooner or later in our working life we all find ourselves facing a conversation at work that has the potential to be difficult. This could be due to heightened emotions, a sensitive topic, the possibility of negative consequences, having to give somebody news they may not want to hear, or even a heady mix of all of these. 

You may be a project manager who needs to tell key stakeholders about a potential problem on the project; you may be a manager who needs to give some tough feedback or tell someone they are at risk of redundancy, or you may have to tell a client an important delivery is going to be late.

I have worked with many clients over the years to assess what has gone well in these conversations in the past and on how they will approach the difficult conversations they face in the future. This work with clients has highlighted the challenges of these conversations but has illustrated that it is possible to get consistently good results if three broad areas are considered before the conversation.

The key, of course, is preparation. Spending time taking positive action to prepare is more constructive than spending that time worrying about what could happen, how hard it is going to be and assuming the worst.

These three questions introduce you to the areas you need to consider before any difficult conversations at work so you can perform at your best and get the optimum results every time.  The amount of time you spend on each question will vary depending on the circumstances; it may a quick mental checklist, or something you need to sit and really work through.

Question 1: What really is the situation?

Getting to the bottom of what is really happening is going to give your difficult conversations at work a firm foundation.  Gather your facts and separate them from your feelings. If possible, and if appropriate, talk to others whose input will be able to support your fact finding.  

Consider what impact the situation is having, both on your business and on you.  Knowing the size and the scope of the consequences will allow you to ensure that the reaction and the outcome are appropriate.

Having identified the facts and separated them from the feelings, it is also important to think about how you are reacting to the situation.  What assumptions are you making? What personal hot buttons are being pressed? What concerns do you have about the conversation and are they really valid?  Are you avoiding the conversation in the hope of a miraculous recovery? In truth we have all done this to avoid difficult conversations at work – but we have probably all found the longer we leave something like this, the harder it gets!

Question 2: What do I want from the conversation?

Take time to consider the purpose and objectives of the conversation.  Think through the outcomes you are looking for and what options there are. What do you need to achieve? What would you like to be different as a result of the conversation? Thinking these things through ahead of any difficult conversations at work will allow you to really focus on what is being said and listen to understand the other person’s perspective, rather than to spend the conversation trying to work out your response.

Question 3: What do I need to do to be ready for the conversation?

Time to get planning!  What are the practical things you need to consider ahead of the conversation?  What is the best time of day? Where is the best place to have the conversation?  Should anyone else be present? You’re probably not going to get the best results in an open plan office!

You also need to prepare yourself.  Take some time to think about how you need to be and what behaviours you want to exhibit in the meeting.  My own management experience, and the same has been reported by my clients, has highlighted the importance of keeping an enquiring mind during the conversation, keeping calm and listening to the other person.

Taking a few deep breaths not only calms you down but ensures your brain has the oxygen it needs to perform well. Being compassionate, considerate and listening actively demonstrates the respect you have for the other person. Being comfortable with silence allows you and the person you are talking to time to think and process the information that is being discussed and will help you get to a resolution that works for you both. What do you need to do to go into the conversation ready to be like that?

Personally, and I suspect I am not alone here, I find the hardest part is getting started.  What are you actually going to say? Your opening sets the tone; it can make the whole conversation easier, or it can make it really difficult.  Have you ever been on the receiving end of bad news where you knew something unwelcome was coming and you just wanted the person telling you to spit it out rather than beat around the bush for what feels like a lifetime?  It is horrid and we don’t have to subject people to that! While scripting the whole conversation isn’t going to work, planning how you’re going to open the discussion is a really good idea.

And you are ready to get a good outcome from a difficult conversation

Once you have answered these questions you should feel ready to take action and have those difficult conversations at work, without them feeling nearly as daunting as you thought they would be.

Support can make all the difference when planning for difficult conversations at work so get in touch to book a consult call and let’s chat.  

Starting a new job – here’s how to make your great first impression last

Starting a new job – here’s how to make your great first impression last

When starting a new job, we all need to negotiate a series of ‘transition traps’. But these are easy to avoid with my three simple tips for a smooth and successful transition into a new role.

Landing a new job is a fantastic achievement, often the culmination of a lot of hard work. However, this is just the beginning; starting a new job is your next challenge and one you need to make a success of, and fast! Successfully transitioning into a new role is not easy; there are many potential traps and possible trip hazards you need to avoid along the way.

New Job Trap 1: Managing expectations

Early in my career I found myself working for two bosses and, while each of them was a great leader in their own way, they each had very different ideas about what my role should contribute. I still remember the challenges of learning to balance those views and the dread with which I went into my annual appraisal, wondering if I had managed to deliver enough of each of their expectations. 

When you are starting a new job, especially if you are also joining a new organisation, you face that same situation, with everyone having different expectations about you and what you could and should be delivering.

This very dilemma is the first transition trap you face; managing people’s expectations in a new environment. When you start, you don’t know the organisation’s language, politics, or cultural norms. Great management of your key stakeholders is going to be vital and those stakeholders should include your new boss, your new team, your new customers (internal or external) and your peers.

And it is not just the people in your new organisation whose expectations you are going to have to manage. For a transition to be a total success when you’re starting a new job, it’s going to need to work in conjunction with other parts of your world, such as your family, friends and hobbies. Actively considering these and managing their expectations, and indeed your own, is also key if you are to avoid tripping up.

New Job Trap 2: Navigating a new organisation

As well as the potential transition traps set by others, there are a host of potential hazards connected the organisation. When starting a new job, you won’t know how the organisation works, what its processes and practices are, how they use technology or how they expect to collaborate and make decisions.

New Job Trap 3: Don’t set your own traps 

And the final set of transition traps are all about you. Have you ever had a new colleague who soon alienated everyone by saying things like ‘When I was at my old company we did…’ and whose mind was not open to building on the good things your company already does? Or maybe one who just never seemed to learn about your organisation, or one who seemed to be trying to change everything before the end of their first week?

As you can see, the potential transition traps are plentiful and varied, so how can they be avoided?

The good news is that avoiding these traps can be relatively simple, and uses skills which you will be familiar with as a leader. Here are three steps you can take to navigate your way to a successful transition.

Step 1: Listen to understand

Approach each day, each situation, each conversation with an open mind; listen to what is said and ask questions to clarify your understanding. Ask questions about the things that are not said.  Remember you have a fresh pair of eyes and take a childlike curiosity into your new role and be prepared to ask about everything.

When starting a new job, really listening to people will give you the foundations on which to build strong relationships with your new colleagues. As with any change, uncertainty can make people concerned and worried. You can help alleviate those fears by listening to understand, building up the people around you and showing them that you value them.

Step 2:  Review

Take time each day to review what you have heard to bring together the different things you have experienced. Capture what you are learning and ask yourself what it all means. As you get ready to plan, ask yourself what hypotheses are you forming about your new organisation?

Step 3: Plan

As well as the medium and long-term plans you are formulating for your role, planning your approach to each day is especially important when you are starting a new job. This plan does not have to be complicated; try asking yourself these three questions:

  1. Based on what you have found out so far, what else do you need to know about?

  2. What questions do you still have and who is best placed to answer them for you?

  3. What can I contribute today?

Both you and your new organisation have invested time and money in you starting in this new role, so you are both invested in your success. Approaching your new role in this way will allow you to avoid the job transition traps and position you to be a huge success, however you are defining that. While this three-step approach may look simple, like many things it is easier said than done, so it will require your conscious attention.  

The support of a coach, and ideally one who is not a member of staff at your new organisation, can really unlock this process. Research has shown that senior managers who have just five sessions with an external coach during their first 12 weeks with an organisation are considered effective in their role in half the time it takes for those who do not to get up to speed. They are making a positive impact in their new organisation by the end of that period and are twice as likely to remain in the organisation for more than 2 years.

To learn how Bekka’s proven approach can help you be really successful when you are starting a new job

The Forgotten Project Planning Question

The forgotten planning and project management question: What if it works? 

You’ve planned for every eventuality… but have you planned for success?
This is something we tend to overlook when project planning, so don’t forget to ask yourself this vital project planning question.

When faced with a project, a programme or even just a big piece of work, as project managers we tend to start by getting clarity on what we want to deliver and how we will know if we have delivered it.  Then we will make a plan. We will think about all the things that could go wrong and how to manage those risks. We will question and interrogate our plans: what could go wrong? What if this doesn’t happen? What if that’s late? What if the unexpected happens? 

But recently, as I chatted to the managers of some very successful projects, it struck me that we may all be missing something in our planning processes.  A vital project planning question.

What if it goes well? 

It’s a trap I have fallen into, too. We get very creative in coming up with unlikely events taking our project off track and, yes, I do know of an IT project which was taken off track by a cannonball, so it’s not without reason.

But projects can and do go well and this can present its own issues. If you are running ahead of schedule, will the team be ready to start work on the next stage of the project?  

A project manager I spoke to was lamenting the fact that they had not brought resources in early enough on a project with tight timelines.  On delivery day, a critical go/no go decision came in three hours early but the people who could make the necessary system changes were not available until the originally expected time. This left the mission-critical project sitting waiting, while the managers watched the clock nervously, hoping there would be no problems later in the day – again, planning around what could go wrong!

What if your project goes well and your results are better than expected?  Will you have the capacity to manage them? I once led a team development and engagement programme which resulted in such a high level of participation that I had to find an extra two days a week to keep the momentum going; it’s a great problem to have but not a scenario I had planned for!

What if what you are working on goes well?  What would that mean for you? Do you have a plan in place?

To an extent, as project managers, we are paid to consider and plan for what could go wrong but are we really doing our jobs of we do not consider both sides of performance, the good as well as the bad?  Since what we plan for and focus on is what tends to happen, could we boost our project performance by planning for success?

​My challenge to you

Let’s bring this question to the front of our planning.  As you go through your scenario planning for your next project, your next programme or your next big piece of work, as well as considering all the things that could go wrong I would encourage you to reinstate the forgotten project planning question: What if it goes well?

For more information on effective meetings or to discuss further how you can set your projects up for success

3 Top Tips for Engaging and Effective Meetings

Top 3 Tips For Engaging And Effective Meetings

Do you dread sitting in boring meetings? Let’s change the way we all work by holding better meetings. Here are three top tips for engaging and effective meetings which people will want to attend.

A couple of years ago I read a BBC article on How to look interested in boring meetings and it has stuck with me because I found its premise so frustrating.

I have sat through my fair share of meetings so dull they would make watching paint dry look fun and a guide to surviving certainly has its place but – and this is a big but – surely the solution is not to fake interest but to ensure meetings are not boring in the first place. If we mask our true feelings, then how will meetings ever improve?

As the leadership element of our working lives grows so, typically, does the amount of time we spend in meetings. Therefore getting them working well for us can have a huge impact.

Imagine how much better your working day would be if all meetings were engaging, and productive, genuinely helpful and interesting?

If you are reading this after a particularly uninspiring meeting, you may well be thinking this is impossible. But with a little effort it can be done, no matter what the topic.  Here are my top three tips:

Meeting Top Tip 1: Make sure the purpose of every meeting is clear

Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People®, talks about “always beginning with the end in mind” – and this also important advice for effective meetings.

Meetings are time and resource-hungry and knowing their purpose is fundamental to making them productive and engaging, and to ensuring they have a positive impact on both the business and the individuals attending.

Consider these questions:

  • Why are you meeting?  
  • What is the goal?
  • What do we want to talk about which has not already been discussed?  
  • What do we need to work out?
  • What do we need to decide?  
  • What are the outputs for the meeting?
  • What questions do you want to be able to answer for people as a result of the meeting?  
  • Is a meeting the best way to accomplish this?

Your answers will provide the foundations for a productive, engaging and effective meeting, and the remaining two tips assume you have already answered these questions.

Meeting Top Tip 2: Publish an agenda

Summarising the purpose and desired outputs of the meeting will give you the basis for a focused and productive agenda.  

It will allow you to remove items which are not relevant to the purpose and which will not help you towards the outputs.  You will know which agenda items could be managed outside the meeting or covered in a separate, more relevant meeting if necessary.

Sharing the meeting purpose and desired outputs with your published agenda will give attendees time to prepare and allow them to arrive ready to contribute in the best way. They will have had a chance to gather any information you are expecting them to contribute, to consider their positions and to understand what they will gain from the meeting. It will also give you chance to circulate any necessary pre-reading, again cutting down time spent in the meeting itself.

This simple practice will allow everyone to arrive with the same expectations, energised and ready to make it a great meeting.

And talking of people...

Meeting Top Tip  3: Only invite people who need to be at the meeting

Having established your purpose and outputs, it should be easy to invite only those who are actually needed to achieve the meeting aims.

If certain people are required for just one of the agenda items, then only invite them for that section of the meeting or split your meeting into a series of smaller ones.

By its very definition, time is a limited resource, so why not let everyone make the most of theirs and avoid having them sit through sessions which are irrelevant to them and therefore just not interesting. If someone needs to understand what was discussed – or just know the decision you have made – simply share the output, rather than have them in the meeting itself.

Likewise, it is worth remembering you don’t have to attend every meeting you are invited to. If the organiser is not able to explain what the meeting is about or what they would like you to contribute, you should think carefully about attending

My challenge to you

On the surface, these three tips may just look like extra work for the organiser but, in my experience, I have found that a little preparation upfront reaps huge rewards, resulting in more productive effective meetings and more engaged attendees. 

Think of the most engaging meetings you have held or attending. How much better would life be if all meetings could be like that?

My challenge to you is to try my tips with some of your meetings and experience the benefits for yourself. 

For more information on effective meetings or to discuss further how you can make these tips come to life in your working world

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