Can I have a word?
Does saying or hearing this phrase fill you with dread? Here are some approaches to dealing with difficult conversations…
Open, honest conversation is the best antidote. Every conversation is unique, so there is no formula for success. However, there are some key principles that help ensure as constructive an outcome as possible.
Prepare in advance
Get the facts and context in advance – preferably in your head as far as possible. Then have extra data to hand in case it is needed. Plan the shape of the conversation, but don’t be over-prescriptive. Book in a time slot and suitable meeting space. The time allowed should be realistic and allow slippage. The space should be private.
Give clear notice to the individual, but be humane. Make the meeting as soon as reasonably possible and frame it in a way that signals this is important but not to make them fearful. “We need to talk” is too loaded, whereas “Let’s have a chat” may be too casual.
Listen at depth
Start the conversation by establishing rapport, during which time take note of their body language. When you know people well such as work colleagues, be extra careful that mirroring their body language does not come across as false or patronising. However it’s so important to gently echo what you see in front of you. This helps to connect with the person. If their body language conveys anxiety and you are initially too relaxed, this may signal that you don’t care.
Invite them to talk first perhaps with an open question such as “How are you doing?” Listen carefully to the response, using all your active listening skills. In a critical conversation it is easy to be distracted by your own worry about what you are going to say and how it might be received. You can allay these worries by focusing fully on listening. Depending on what is said, you may then either lay out the parameters of what the conversation is about, or simply reflect feelings before going any further.
If you are discussing bad news, for example possible redundancies, it is likely that people are already reacting to this information. In the initial phase – shock, denial, anger and heightened anxiety are very common and they may well say things that are inaccurate or irrational. Unless there has been a substantial misunderstanding of key information, the biggest mistake at this point is to get caught up in the minutiae of facts. This can come later. Even correcting facts can be missing the main point and you can get caught up in verbal ‘ping pong’ which brings more heat than light. Instead, an accurate and genuine attempt to recognise and reflect the strength of feeling helps the person to vent further, which in turn helps them feel heard. They are then more likely to calm down quicker and engage with the rational elements of what is happening.
Set out parameters
When a conversation is critical, it is helpful to lay out what you are here to discuss, the approximate time-frame of the conversation and anything else that gives focus and structure early on. This ensures maximum clarity and minimises the chance of getting side-tracked. It also appropriately de-personalises the interaction, but ensure your tone has warmth and expression, otherwise it quickly feels cold and remote.
Get to the point
Anxiety may be high, so it is a humane response to get to the point without being abrupt. If there is bad news, so in plain language. The information at this point should be clear, concise but not without feeling. Then check for understanding, and allow time for their response. Of course this will vary hugely from individual to individual. If necessary, go to reflection of feelings before continuing. Don’t get side-tracked or be over optimistic. It is easy to go into ‘rescue mode’ by saying things will probably work out. They may not. Your task at this point is to help the individual fully understand what is being said and the possible consequences.
Check for understanding
To ensure that information has been fully understood, it is helpful if they can repeat back in their own words what has been said. This helps avoid misunderstanding and reinforces the message. Help them reflect back in a way that is not over optimistic nor pessimistic, but that engages with the reality.
Leave on a constructive note
Your next task will be to help them be as resourceful for themselves as possible. Open questions that help them prepare for the uncertain future, such as ‘What do you need to do in the next few weeks to prepare for possible redundancy? How can I assist with this? This may be too much at this stage, so it may well be for a later conversation. It could be that once you have checked for understanding then you conclude, but book in a slot for a follow up conversation as soon as possible. By that time the initial information should have sunk in and they have moved on enough to take in more information and can begin planning. Check they have the support they need – from you, other colleagues and outside of work.
Confirm the follow up meeting, send through notes, together with other information and resources that will help.