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Conversations are an essential part of your job, especially those difficult conversations.

Difficult conversations are the ones where you know you need to talk with someone about something, but you expect that they’ll either: (a) want to vociferously disagree with you, or (b) become upset, agitated, or disgruntled by what you are saying.

Said another way, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, authors of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most, describe it thusly:

“Anytime we feel vulnerable or our self-esteem is implicated, when the issues at stake are important and the outcome uncertain, when we care deeply about what is being discussed or about the people with whom we are discussing it, there is potential for us to experience the conversation as difficult.”

Leadership IS Difficult Conversations

Who hasn’t, at some point, used any of these difficult conversation starters?

  • “You’re being written up for a performance lapse…”
  • “You’re getting less of a raise and/or bonus than you probably expected…”
  • “You didn’t get the promotion…”
  • “You cannot have that day off…”
  • “Your request has been denied…”
  • “Funding for your project was not approved…”

But what many bosses don’t seem to realize, is that having a difficult conversations really IS what their job is all about. And it’s helpful to remember that while difficult conversations may be somewhat challenging, they’re really, really important.

Making Difficult Conversations More So

It’s really a shame how many bosses make difficult conversations so much more difficult than they need to be. How? Here are just 10 obvious ways:

  1. By being disrespectful
  2. By being argumentative
  3. By becoming triggered
  4. By not listening
  5. By losing patience
  6. By allowing the conversation to shift to a related, but different topic
  7. By holding a grudge from prior difficult conversations
  8. By not having the conversation in a timely manner
  9. By not preparing their whys and wherefores
  10. By not insuring that the message they INTENDED to be received was the message that actually WAS received. (Remember Leadership Move #7?!)

We’ve all had bosses who’ve made conversations more difficult than they needed to be. Maybe you do, too, sometimes.

Making Difficult Conversations Less So

Countless articles, blog posts, books, and such, have been written on the topic. Pick up a few and start reading. Or, if you prefer podcasts or videos, etc., there are plenty of them, out there, as well.

But if you’re looking for a few ideas to get you started on the road to mastering difficult conversations, here’s what I’d recommend:

  1. Always be respectful and attentive to the employee you’re talking with, AND the related business concerns you’re wanting to address.
  2. Remember that, as the boss, you have the authority (and responsibility) to choose the agenda or specific (business-appropriate) topic of any meeting you chair.
  3. Never, ever, confront someone with only hearsay evidence. Instead, lead with either verifiable facts or direct personal experience.
  4. Unbundle and differentiate between related and overlapping issues so you can speak more discerningly about what you want to talk about.
  5. Purposefully choose how best to start each conversation and when best to segue between related issues.
  6. Actively monitor tone, tenor, and mood to insure that the employee feels comfortable and safe enough to actually BE present, when present.
  7. Deflect attempts to change the topic until you are completely satisfied that the message you intended to be received is exactly the message that was received.
  8. Reiterate as often as necessary ‘why’ this topic is so important (usually because it affects not just their own performance, but the performance of the larger group – which is, by the way, why you’re totally justified in raising it with them) and that it’s important to you that they fully understand these implications and ‘respond’ to them, constructively.
  9. Have the employee restate the message you wanted them to receive (to confirm proper receipt) and discuss and agree to any related commitments, appropriate next steps, and ongoing accountabilities.
  10. Thank them for their time and willingness to have such an important dialogue with you, express your appreciation for who they are and what they do, and offer to clarify any points or answer any follow-up questions they may have as they think through and work to integrate your counsel.

Of course you could also schedule a time for us to talk it through, together.

Your thoughts?


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