Whether you’re speaking with employees, the management team or stakeholders, if you’re a business leader, you will inevitably find yourself needing to have difficult conversations at times. While it’s impossible to avoid such discussions, there are positive ways to handle the exchange.
It can be a challenge to calm your thoughts and say the right things in the midst of a talk you would rather not be having, but with enough patience and practice, you can ensure something positive will come of it. Here, 15 experts from Forbes Coaches Council weigh in to explain how leaders can effectively handle a difficult conversation and ensure the best outcome, regardless of who they’re speaking to.
Difficult conversations are critical because they allow leaders to continually readjust the course in terms of value, strategy and results. Take a step back, focus on the bigger picture and communicate the value of these conversations to your team. Make these regular exchanges commonplace and leave room for constant renewal, and you will no longer have difficult but rather constructive conversations. – Xavier Preterit, BIMR EDITION
Focus on your desired outcome for your relationship with that person. Take a minute to pause and reflect on what you want the end result to be and how you can get there. Very often, it will involve being clear and direct about your intention. State your intention at the outset of the conversation so that the other person understands your motivation and doesn’t misinterpret your intent. – Kirsten Meneghello, Illumination Coaching LLC
Context is key. No matter the audience, set the context as a foundation. For an employee, it might be a commitment to their excellence or performance. For the management team, it might be their determination to optimize team performance. For other stakeholders, explicitly contextualize it toward their goals and intentions. With the right context, all communication is a contribution rather than a criticism. – Amie Devero, Beyond Better
Difficult conversations often arise because expectations are not met. Approaching these with empathy and making sure others feel heard and understood are good first steps. Presenting your viewpoint with facts and inviting them to share solutions will help them feel empowered and not “judged.” If done right, these conversations are wonderful opportunities to have breakthroughs and drive growth in the company. – Emily Letran, Exceptional Leverage Inc.
Handling difficult conversations requires leaders to be solution-oriented. It’s very easy to focus on the problem and how it started. However, to ensure the best outcome, leaders must outline recommendations for solutions and be open to receiving input from other teammates and stakeholders to resolve the situation. If everyone’s input is allowed, the chances of reaching a solution are greater. – Lori A. Manns, Quality Media Consultant Group LLC
When difficult conversations escalate, it’s often because we’ve made a cardinal mistake: We’ve switched into fight mode. This turns the conversation into a zero-sum game, with a winner and a loser. When conversations go this way, everyone looks bad and loses. The real opponent is not your conversation partner, but the battle mode itself. You can overcome this attitude with strategy and skill. – Cristian Hofmann, Empowering Executives | SUPERGROUP LTD
Leaders should listen more and talk less. Take a few deep breaths. It’s that simple. By listening, leaders can better understand the perspective of others and align their responses with the stakeholders’ wants and needs in mind. Breathing deeply helps to stay calm and deescalate any perceived conflict. – Jill Hauwiller, Leadership Refinery
The SCARF model for collaboration from the NeuroLeadership Institute is a great tool to prepare for such conversations. SCARF stands for status (ensuring the other party is respected and heard), certainty (setting clear intentions, including duration and goals), autonomy (creating options and being open to their options too), relatedness (connecting at a human level, as we are all humans) and fairness (aiming for win-win solutions). Voila! – Amy Nguyen, Happiness Infinity LLC
Be well-prepared and think through what your main message is. How will you communicate it? What will you do if the other person reacts negatively? How can you stay calm, open and mindful during the conversation? If the conversation goes well, what will you/we have accomplished? Then, enter the conversation with an open and curious mind, ready to learn something yourself as well. – Pernille Hippe Brun, Session
Communicate the answer to these four questions: “Why?” “What?” “Who?” and “How?” Why are we having this conversation? Explain the factors causing the challenge. What do we already know? State the facts and get a baseline of where to go next. Who should be involved, or who is impacted? This helps you enlist your champions and minimize naysayers. How will we proceed? Discuss next steps and gain accountability. – Shelley Hammell, Sage Alliance, Inc.
Assume positive intent across all parties. Approach the conversation from a place of knowing that everyone has a reason for their point of view and their intention is as valid as yours. When we approach what could be a challenging chat with respect and trust, we always get to a better place. Plus, you’re not being a doormat—in fact, you’re a welcome mat to a better conversation. – Darcy Eikenberg, Red Cape Revolution
Mind your language. Language has the power to uplift and transform or break down and subvert. A skillful message is both specific and easily understood. Body language too (posture, tone of voice and other physical attributes, such as smiling) can induce comfort, confidence or stress. Use both in tandem to ensure your correct message is being relayed. – Arthi Rabikrisson, Prerna Advisory
In a difficult conversation, it helps to keep three things in mind. First, always speak in a manner that allows you to preserve your own integrity; don’t derail. Second, speak in a way that serves to preserve the relationship to the extent possible, even in the case of firing an employee or parting ways with a stakeholder. Finally, remain focused on the outcome; be solution-focused and go for the win-win. – Christine Allen, Insight Business Works
A conversation is only a conversation. It’s a matter of how practiced we are at having it. When we believe a conversation is worthwhile and relevant to an individual’s or organization’s growth and offers new insights beyond the obvious, then we have the choice to see the conversation as something other than difficult. It’s only a conversation that will help us take care of what we care about. – Angela Cusack, Igniting Success
Too often, leaders plan difficult conversations chronologically, which derails you from achieving your true purpose because you get lost in each step. Instead, ask yourself, “At the end of this conversation, what do I want everyone to walk away knowing, feeling and doing?” Get crystal clear on your end goal first. Then, plan each step to ensure that you achieve it. – Loren Margolis, Training & Leadership Success LLC