Having Difficult Conversations at Work
If you know that you need to have a challenging conversation, it’s worth preparing thoroughly for it. The preparation time may be disproportionate to the length of the conversation itself, but if the conversation’s important enough, your preparation will rarely be wasted. As a friend of mine was always told, ‘Prepare thoroughly and deviate with confidence’.
There are a number of things to consider:
1. Time and place.
What’s the appropriate time and place for the conversation? If you squash it in between other meetings, you have no leeway for it to overrun. Is it best to have it now or later? And is it best to stay in the office or would it be more conducive to have it outside?
2. Set it up to succeed.
Would it be beneficial for the other person to know (broadly) in advance what it’s about, or not? At a minimum, you may want to make sure that they’ve cleared enough time in their diary, so they don’t arrive and say they only have 15 minutes free.
3. Set the context.
Once you meet up, make clear to them what you want to speak about. If you beat about the bush too much, the other person will wonder what on earth’s going on, and may not even be clear what you’ve said.
4. Make your commitment clear.
This is vital and can often be missed. When you start a difficult conversation, you need to set the context. Take this example of Mia, who’s given some feedback by her boss. She’s highly regarded at work and is seen as someone with the potential for promotion in the coming year, but her boss assumes she knows this and starts their conversation by saying:
‘As you know, we’ve gathered some feedback from your colleagues and there are a few areas that have come to light that I want to discuss.’Mia’s immediately on the defensive, while her boss is surprised that she’s not being more constructive. It would help if he began by saying:
‘Mia, you’re highly valued and we’re really keen for you to progress to a more senior role. You’re already exceptionally strong in some areas, and need to develop in others.’
5. Make the distinction between ‘facts’ and ‘stories’ or ‘opinions’.
A fact may be: ‘You’ve been late 3 times in the last 10 working days’.
- A story or opinion would be: ‘You’re unreliable.’
- There is nothing intrinsically wrong with having opinions, but it’s better to state it this way: ‘I have an opinion that you’re unreliable.’
6. Acknowledge their perspective.
Ask them questions so that you can understand their perspective (this doesn’t mean you have to agree with it). And then listen. If you’re not prepared to listen, don’t bother asking, but don’t expect much engagement from them either. Prior to a meeting most people spend their time thinking about what they want to say, but it may be even more important to consider what questions you want to ask.
7. Get clear what’s going to happen next.
Obviously this depends on the situation, but it’s worth agreeing together a clear action or a date to review things after some reflection time.
8. Be aware.
Lastly, be aware that – however well you conduct the conversation – what you say might come as a shock to the other person.
In her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross introduced a hypothesis based on her work with terminally ill patients. In the majority of cases she found that patients went through a spectrum of different emotional states: beginning with denial then leading to anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Her model has since been adapted to fit a broader set of situations where someone receives unwelcome news. The instinctive response is often to deny it, followed by feelings of anger, withdrawing to lick their wounds, and finally coming round to acceptance. You may need to give someone room to go through this process, while remaining available to speak to them if other questions and concerns arise.