General Business

Initiating and Facilitating Difficult Conversations

When it comes time to deliver difficult or sensitive information, it is good to be candid and truthful.  However, that isn’t always enough.  Attempting to be straightforward, an executive might say to a room full of employees, “I want to be honest with all of you. About half of you are going to be fired.  We are going to give you two weeks full pay and I want your desk cleaned out by Friday.”  Whoa!  Clearly, this is not good communication.  It falls far short because the conversation lacks the other elements that absolutely must be added to the formula for effectively communicating in difficult circumstances.  Consider the following when initiating and facilitating difficult conversations:

  • Empathize.  Take the time to think about what YOU would want to hear in a similar situation.  Imagine what it might be like to receive the difficult information you are about to share.  In many cases, when the other person believes that you are making that attempt, they feel appreciative.  Again, they are not happy to hear the news, but your effort to empathize will make it just a little more bearable.
  • Manage your emotions.  Regardless of the message you are delivering, emotions can easily become charged.  The key is to keep your emotions in check, and if you see the other person starting to get defensive or emotional, navigate the situation carefully by either reframing the discussion or taking a quick pause to the meeting.
  • Be solution-oriented.  Don’t criticize or give negative feedback without offering a potential remedy to improve the situation like this; “Mary, I feel that we could have done a much better job on the Johnson report I suggest that as we move forward, we meet and agree on a strategy before we take any actions…”
  • Have a strategy.  Going into a difficult conversation without a “strategy” is dangerous.  Identifying your larger goals and the main message you want to get across are keys to staying focused.
  • Be flexible and agile.  When you anticipate push back, defensiveness, or an outright rejection, you need to be prepared to adapt your conversational strategy accordingly.  By simply thinking that things will work out the way you want them to basically means you are not prepared.
  • Use open-ended questions.  Identify 2-3 open-ended questions when facilitating to get the other person talking.  The key is not to lecture or do all the talking.  Yet, once the other party does start talking, be a really good listener and ask probing, clarifying and open-ended questions.
  • Use real life examples.  Use concrete, specific and real-life examples to paint a clearer picture of how you see the situation.  Don’t assume the other person understands just because you understand.
  • Don’t avoid difficult conversations.  There is a price to pay when you don’t confront difficult conversations.  One of my favorite quotes is “You can’t change what you refuse to confront.”  Some of my clients claim they are too “nice” to engage in difficult conversations.  But the consequences are real when a leader practices avoidance.  Things usually get worse.  Frustration festers. Walls get higher and then you are forced to deal with this new situation, but by then things are a lot more difficult to navigate.

Simply put, when it comes to initiating and facilitating difficult conversations, there is nothing fun about it.  Many of us simply look away and ignore the issue, hoping it will simply disappear.  However, the great leaders deal with them head on.

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