How to have difficult conversations with your team
Are you currently worried about difficult conversations you might have to have at work after lockdown? Mark Topley lists some things to consider when you’re having these talks.
You might be asking people to work in different ways, work longer hours, more flexible working patterns. You might even be having to lay some people off once the furlough arrangements come to an end, and these are difficult conversations. They cause fear, anxiety and stress, and I’ve never met a leader who enjoys these kind of conversations. But from my experience of having to make redundancies, having to fire people, and having to get people to work in ways that they didn’t want to, there’s a few things that I’ve learned which I hope will be helpful for you.
First things first
The first thing to do is stop calling it a difficult conversation. It’s not going to be easy, it may not be pleasant. Nobody comes out of it unscathed, but it’s necessary. So call it a necessary conversation, or any other word that you need.
The minute you say difficult, your brain says: ‘This is something we need to worry about.’ We don’t need to worry about it. We do need to prepare for it, and that starts with reframing it.
The second thing we need to do is to prepare – head and heart.
Preparing your heart means that we’ve got leave out any anger, resentment or other negative emotion we might bring into the conversation. Anything that’s going to inflame the potential for conflict, we need to let go of. Get yourself into a place where you can approach the conversation with kindness and with humility. If we put ourselves in that frame of mind, we’re gonna be in a much better position to lead people through the conversation more positively.
Head preparation requires asking ourselves some questions. Get really clear on the problem, and what we want the outcome to be:
- What specifically is the problem we have to address (as you see it)?
- We should also ask ourselves – ‘What do they think is the problem?’ If you don’t know, then make this question part of the conversation – seek first to understand, and then to be understood, as Covet said.
The second thing in head preparation is to get crystal clear on the outcome that you want. What is your goal for this conversation? What is it that you want people to do, think, feel and know after that conversation? Jotting down some points on this can help you to get clarity on what the outcome is that you want. This means you’ll go into the conversation subconsciously looking for those things to be achieved. It’s also worth thinking about what you want to feel like at the end of the conversation, because that will dictate how you conduct yourself..
Plan the conversation
Plan it, but don’t script it – because things very rarely turn out as we imagine. All plans change on first contact. As Eisenhower once said: ‘Plan is useless, but planning is indispensable’.
Going through the process of working out how you’re going to structure the conversation is really important.
Have the conversation
The first thing that I like to do is to acknowledge the situation we’re in, and acknowledge how difficult it is. Not from my perspective, but how difficult it’s going to be for the person that you’re talking to. That kind of acknowledgement and empathy for what they might be feeling is really, really important.
Next, state the goal. State what it is that you’re looking to get out of this conversation so that people understand where you’re heading. A win:win aim also helps to diffuse potential finger-pointing and blaming. We want to outline a positive outcome, whatever that might be, for the person, for the business, for the team.
Now, at this point, some people are going to react, and that’s okay. Reactions of anger, tears, sadness are a normal, human emotion in response to bad news or situations that we don’t like. The important thing to do in this situation is not to snap back or interrupt. Sit back and listen to what people are saying, and validate what they’re saying. You don’t have to accept what they’re saying or agree with it, but you do need to show that you understand that this is tough for them. Above all, don’t dismiss them. Accept that it might be hard for them. ‘This must be hard for you. I know this is gonna be difficult for you.’
Our bodies respond to these sorts of situations in different ways. Our breathing might get elevated, our heart-rate might go up. We’ll start to feel hot and flushed. So slow down, be patient, and breathe. When you respond, take a couple of seconds before you answer.
When you can, aim to give something. Think about what it is that you can give to them. If you’re having to lay somebody off, you could provide them with a list of resources or recommendations or introductions to other people. It might be that there’s a concession that you can offer further down the line, for people who are having to work longer hours. Whatever you can do to show that you understand that this is difficult for them and you want to acknowledge that with some way of helping them is important.
As you wrap up the conversation, restate the outcome. See where you’ve got to, and then outline the next steps. That might be a deadlines, check-in dates, or behaviour that you want to see change. Whatever is happening next, make sure you make that really clear at the end.
I’ve made the mistake in the past of trying to get people to like me after these kind of conversations. Don’t emote. You need to avoid pandering or trying to get people to like you if they are bruised or upset. By all means be friendly, be kind, be empathetic. But don’t make yourself the victim. You need to stay strong and you need to stay focused on what your outcome is. Accept that there may be some processing that people need to go through, so don’t judge your success on whether everyone likes you all the time. That’s almost impossible as a leader.
And then finally, give yourself some grace. Get some support. These seasons can take an emotional toll. Pick up the phone to a friend, a mentor, a peer who is in the same position as you. Get support from forums that you can, because you’re going need it, particularly if you’re going be having a lot of these conversations over the next few weeks.
I hope that’s helpful. These kind of conversations are not easy. They are difficult, but they are very necessary. They are a crucial part of your role, and as you take difficult decisions to keep your business on the right track, out of lockdown and into rebuilding, it’s really important that you take this responsibility seriously. You must prepare well for these necessary conversations. Keep going with the fortitude and self-belief that you need to have for the good of your team.