You know the one. It’s the difficult conversation you need to have with an employee who isn’t doing the job, or causing a problem, or doesn’t play well with others. The one that keeps you up at night and causes your stomach to feel like the butterflies inside you are learning the Latin rhumba. The number of excuses you’ve come up with to evade the issue is a testament to your creativity.
That perfect set of circumstances that you’re waiting for is simply not going to happen. And you know that the longer you wait, the worse things get and the more difficult the issue becomes to address. So instead of procrastinating and suffering, have the conversation! The key is to prepare in 3 separate steps.
1. Prepare yourself emotionally.
- Draw on your emotional intelligence to become self aware of how you’re feeling. Understanding your tendencies, what pushes your buttons and why, will help keep you from doing and saying things you’ll later regret. Don’t have the conversation when you’re rushed, upset, or unprepared for it.
- Ignore the assumptions you’re making and stories you’re telling yourself about WHY the person is behaving the way they are. People make up scenarios from their own perspective and that frequently leads to false conclusions before the meeting has even started. Those pre-conceived ideas rarely lead to a good outcome. After all, if the person you’re talking to is a reasonable, rational, well-meaning person in general, than there must be something causing them take the actions they’ve taken. A common error is to assume people do what they do because of a flawed personality as opposed to the situation they’re in (she gets angry at people because she has a bad temper).
- Make a conscious decision to control body language because the body will convey more than 50% of the message. The employee will read the body language at the very beginning of the conversation, so decide in advance what you want to convey and how best to demonstrate that message with your body. Without advance planning, body language is reflective and can torpedo the discussion without warning.
2. Gather data.
One of the biggest mistakes executives make is to go into a difficult conversation with an employee armed with either too little data or incorrect data. This leads to defensiveness, emotional arguments, and a loss of credibility. Do the homework that can make a difference between an explosive and damaging conversation, and one that is effective and builds the relationship.
3. Prepare for the conversation itself.
Once you know the key things that need to be said and have a format for organizing them, things become easier. Don’t fall for the myths that bad news needs to be coupled with good news, or that small talk is a good lead-in, or that the employee need a host of examples to “prove” your point.
Susan Scott, an internationally recognized leader in skillful dialog and author of the book Fierce Conversations, recommends the following 7 steps to open the conversation:
Opening a difficult conversation
1. Name the issue.
Be very clear about what the central issue is. "I want to talk to you about the effect your harsh language is having on the staff."
2. Select a specific example.
It's important to illustrate the behavior or situation you want changed.
3. Describe your emotions about the issue.
That will make the issue more personal. "I’m worried/concerned/upset."
4. Clarify what is at stake.
Why is this issue important and worth talking about? "Your violation of a core company value sends a strong message that we don’t consider our values important and that they don’t make a difference."
5. Identify your contribution to the problem.
This is a brief and honest acknowledgement of what role you may have had in creating the situation. "I should have talked to you about this the first time I observed it."
6. Indicate your wish to resolve the issue.
This communicates good intent on your part . "I want to resolve this so that it does not ever occur again."
7. Invite the other person to respond.
"What do you think is going on from your perspective?"
Once the conversation has been opened in this clear and concise manner, keep it focused on the specific named issue and the path to resolution. The goal is to help the other person want to take appropriate action. Help them understand what needs to be done and why it’s important, then decide together what the next step and ultimate solution will be. Always make sure that follow-up is part of the plan so that the conversation does not have to take place again.
A results-focused organization must possess the skills and the courage to execute on difficult and uncomfortable conversations. Otherwise, problems grow and the organization stagnates.
Use these three steps to stay on track and keep the forward momentum going.