How to Tackle Difficult Conversations and Ensure Effective Follow-Up

If you’ve ever had to broach a difficult topic with your manager, I’m sure you’ve spent some time building your confidence and preparing yourself to increase the odds that the conversation will go well. It probably doesn’t surprise you to hear that I’ve coached a lot of individuals, helping them to get ready for those sorts of discussions, as we all know just how stressful these sorts of conversations can be.

However, would you be surprised if I told you that I also work closely with leaders prior to these conversations? Believe it or not, they can feel the stress just as much.

In their paper titled ‘Asked For vs Unasked For Feedback: An Experimental Study, psychologists Tessa West and Katherine Thorson found that giving feedback was just as stressful as receiving it. If you’ve ever had to give difficult feedback, this probably doesn’t surprise you. After all, when the need to provide constructive feedback arises, many people dread it, and can tend to put it off or rationalize away the need to have the conversation at al. Still, with some care and preparation, it is possible to handle these situations effectively.

Before embarking on a difficult conversation, here are some questions that I often advise my clients to ask themselves:

  • Am I in the right frame of mind?

Have you ever noticed that your emotional state can have an impact on your perspective? For example, if you’re feeling angry and frustrated, you might find that you’re focused more on getting even or lashing out than on actually having a productive interaction. Difficult conversations are, by their very nature, difficult. But they can be a whole lot worse if you’re not in a clear mental space. Therefore, if possible, before you broach a difficult topic, make sure that heart is in the right place, that you have the motivation to work on a resolution, and that you’re calm enough to handle the conversation constructively. Also, try to schedule the meeting for a period during your day when both parties will have have the time to fully discuss the issue and process any concerns that come up.

  • Do I have the right attitude?

Sometimes, there is a very clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to situations. For example, if we knew that an employee had spoken rudely to a client, we know that the employee had acted wrongly. Still, as a leader, it doesn’t mean that you should enter the conversation with an ‘I win’ attitude. The goal isn’t to be a winner in the conversation – the goal is to help your employee to develop. Therefore, a better approach is to try to go in with a spirit of curiosity. Instead of making judgements, ask for the other person’s perspective and, most importantly, listen to it. It may give you some insight into that person that can help you to lead him or her more effectively in the future. Or, at the very least, it could become apparent that you’re dealing with a problem employee who may not have the attitude to make it in the long-run.

  • What can I learn from others?

The next time you see an ad, take a moment to analyze it. You’ll notice that marketers use a trick; they often don’t actually advertise their product. Instead, they advertise its effects. That’s because customers don’t want to know what a product it; they want to know how it impacts them. This is a lesson that managers can learn from. Instead of assuming your employee’s intentions, focus instead on the the impact of the behavior in question. We can’t say why a person behaved in the way they did — the employee themselves may not even know — but what we do know is how the behavior has affected others. When you keep your feedback factual, others are less likely to be able to dispute it. As a result, they’ll be more likely to benefit from it.

  • Am I in control of my emotions?

It’s easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment. Too easy, sometimes. Difficult conversations can spark a huge range of emotions, especially if there are differing opinions on both sides of the table. Rather than letting these emotions run away from you, try to keep them in check. Practicing mindfulness is a great way to help you get control of your emotions, and if you do feel that you are behaving too aggressively, or even too conservatively during the discussion, don’t be afraid to take a deep breath and carefully consider your next move before saying something you may regret.

  • Am I ready to be logical?

Being logical is key to handling difficult conversations effectively. If a person becomes defensive, don’t enter into an argument. Instead, acknowledge how the other person feels, using firm yet supportive language. For example, ‘it wasn’t my intent to upset you, but we do need to discuss this’. If you find that your employee is having a hard time in managing their emotions, you might consider revisiting the discussion at a later point. If you choose to use this approach, you can encourage them to think about it, and arrange a convenient time when you can get together again. Ideally try to meet the next day so as not to prolong the situation. (However, if the employee tends to use their emotions as a distraction technique, then you’ll likely want to acknowledge them, and then continue on with the discussion).

  • Ensure Effective Follow-Up

While having the discussion is important, effective follow-ups are critical as well, especially in terms of maintaining or even rebuilding a relationship following a difficult discussion. Therefore, after you’ve had the conversation, you’ll want to make sure to be proactive about acknowledging the situation, and staying positive. I’ve witnessed situations where difficult discussions were simply brushed under the rug afterwards and everyone pretended it never happened. This isn’t constructive, and may lead to problems in the future. The value that can be derived from appreciating that two people with differing views have come together to identify and discuss a concern is often overlooked… it shouldn’t be.

At the end of the conversation, agree on takeaways and action steps, and arrange a time to check in regarding progress. Most importantly, thank your employee for taking the time to engage in the conversation, and for making the effort to find a resolution. Difficult conversations are never easy for either party, but they are an essential technique for aligning employee actions with the overall goals of the organization.

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