Managing difficult conversations

Published: Thursday, 22 March 2018

Some conversations are always going to be uncomfortable. In this article, Louise Wingrove looks at managing difficult subjects with care and confidence.

Summary

  • Be sure what your objectives are.
  • Be clear what information you are trying to convey.
  • Remember that individuals can react differently to the same information.
  • Use detailed information to deliver your message.

One of the key responsibilities of an SBM is to represent the needs of your school and to ensure that your team is performing to a high standard. So, sooner or later you will probably need to have a ‘difficult conversation’.

To give yourself a greater chance of success there are a number of things you can do to prepare for the discussion.

Mindset and objectives

Be clear about your objectives:

  • What are you trying to achieve from your conversation?
  • What are the most important points that the other person needs to understand?

Go in with a positive mindset. Manage your inner voice, the one that says, ‘I won’t cope with X’s reaction’ and, ‘What if I get tongue tied?’ Research shows that our inner voice has a powerful impact on our overall confidence, performance and success. Turn your negatives into positives:

  • ‘I can do this.’
  • ‘I can handle whatever reactions come my way.’
  • ‘I can clearly communicate my message.’

It is also important to manage emotions. If you need to communicate a redundancy, for example, the other person will not thank you for becoming emotional. They need you to be strong. At this point you are representing the business, so any signs of weakness can be confusing or even seen as disingenuous. At the same time, and especially if it is a friend, you may want to empathise with their situation. It is a balance between being in control and being cold and insensitive. A word of warning though, if you are empathising never say, ‘I understand how you feel', because you do not.

Dealing with other’s reactions

When you deliver a difficult message the other person can take it very personally. Even in cases of redundancy where it is the role, rather than the person, that is no longer needed by the organisation, it can feel like a personal rejection. There are four key ways in which people tend to react to difficult news:

  1. The Wall: This person shuts down, is non-responsive, avoids eye contact, and often gives one syllable answers. Collaboration and open discussion with this person is often difficult.
  2. The Victim: This person deflects blame on anything or anyone else (including you). They have emotional outbursts and feel unfairly singled out and picked on.
  3. The Attacker: This person responds by attacking, venting and unloading other issues. They can even become threatening and may try intimidation.
  4. The Escape Artist: This person will agree with everything you say and promise to correct the issue; they just want the discussion to be over.

With all these styles it is important to keep your cool and to repeat your key message, with evidence of performance, if appropriate. Think through how the other person is likely to react and what you will say and do. If emotions become difficult to deal with – excessive crying, for example – you may decide to take a few minutes out to allow you both to collect yourselves.

Be clear with your message

If it is a conversation about disciplinary issues or redundancy, you should ensure that you are following the legal framework, so always refer to your school policies or HR advisor.

Discussions about poor performance are probably the most common form of difficult conversation that you will have to have. It can be easy to get it wrong, though, especially if you use the term ‘attitude’ as part of your feedback. ‘I don’t like your attitude’ is almost certain to get a bad reaction since we never know what someone’s attitude really is – we cannot see attitude. Instead, refer to their behaviour – what they said and did. Behaviour is something that we can observe. He or she may argue with your perception of an attitude but will find it much harder to dispute something that has been observed. It is also easier to change our behaviour than who we are (or our attitude).

If you are giving feedback about poor performance then make sure you get to the point quickly. ‘I need to give you some feedback’ is a good way to start! Do not dilute your message with a long preamble.

Be specific

You should always state the when and the what.

The when

It is important to be specific about when the behaviour was observed, without seeming as if you have been recording their every move (unless you are in a disciplinary situation). For example, ‘You are always late’ is too vague and could elicit the response, ‘No I am not, I was on time all this week’. If you say, ‘You were late by 10 minutes last Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday’ you are less likely to get into a debate.

The what

Be detailed about behaviour. This is especially important when using words such as rude, aggressive and inappropriate, which are not precise enough. For example, look at the difference between these two pieces of feedback:

‘You were rude to Mr Smith.’

Rude could be open to interpretation. What is rude? The potential response could be, ‘No, I wasn’t rude’ and that could sidetrack your feedback.

‘You told Mr Smith to get lost.’

This is stating specifically what was said and you can then focus on what the person needs to do differently, rather than getting caught up in the precise definition of what constitutes rude.

Conclusion

A difficult conversation is never pleasant but can actually be beneficial to the other person. Giving feedback about poor performance, for example, can help that person to improve and ultimately keep their job or get promoted. Whatever the issue is, you need to prepare for the conversation and address it.

About the author

Louise Wingrove has been a trainer and coach for 21 years and has led training teams in companies in both the public and private sectors. She is director of training consulatncy Funky Learning (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.). 

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