Is there a conversation you’ve been avoiding having? Perhaps a member of your team isn’t performing as they should. Or perhaps they’re simply not up to the job.
You know you need to sort the problem but facing it head on is scary. Maybe you’ve had similar conversations in the past that didn’t go to plan.
Having a difficult conversation can feel like a confrontation. They can get emotional. They’re stressful – for both parties. They don’t always achieve the intended outcome.
That’s why, so often, people avoid having them at all. They get someone else to do it. Or they move the offending employee into another team or department to become someone else’s problem.
But avoiding the problem does no one any favours. It could have a serious impact on financial performance, staff morale, customer service, and so on.
Luckily, help is at hand. I’ve been reading Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott, a very accessible and useful book that helps you develop techniques for tackling those difficult conversation you’ve been putting off.
How to prepare for a difficult conversation
First off, my advice is: don’t think of the conversation as ‘difficult’. Thinking this way will only get your hackles raised and your jaw clenched before you’ve even started. Preparing for a confrontation only makes a confrontation all the more likely.
Instead, try and reframe the conversation as an opportunity to explore the problem with the individual concerned and to discover ways to solve that problem together. By treating it as a learning exercise (for both parties) it will be a much calmer, more positive and constructive experience.
Make sure you have all the evidence relating to the performance issue at your fingertips. It’s important to base the conversation on reality rather than emotions or perceptions.
In Fierce Conversations, Scott’s advice is to clarify in your own mind what the issue is, precisely. Is it a concern, a challenge, an opportunity or a recurring problem? What is its significance? What is the impact if it’s not resolved? What results do you want from the conversation? What is the background to the issue – when did it start, who’s involved etc?
This level of clarity and understanding will help ensure the conversation is focused and practical, rather than waffly and emotional.
How to have an honest conversation
Scott describes the four purposes of a fierce conversation (I prefer to say honest conversation – in order to get the best results, honesty really is the best policy.) They are to:
- interrogate reality
- provoke learning
- tackle tough challenges
- enrich relationships.
For Scott, the only way to get to the bottom of things is to drill deep into the problem – to interrogate the reality of the situation. To do this, she advocates asking a series of open questions, really listening to the answers and delaying making any sort of judgement or comment until you feel you’ve really understood what’s at the root of the issue.
As she says, if you’re drilling for oil, it’s better to drill one 100ft well than a hundred 1ft wells.
Her suggested structure for the conversation is as follows:
- Identify your pressing issue – what is the problem?
- Clarify the issue – what is their view of the problem?
- Determine the current impact – what is their view? And what is the feedback from others?
- Determine the future implications – what could be the impact long term in both your views?
- Examine your personal contribution – how could you help them change?
- Determine the ideal outcome – what do you both want to change?
- Commit to action – who, what, by when?
In the book, she suggests some questions you could use in conversations with colleagues and direct reports to help you drill down and identify/clarify the issue:
- What is currently impossible to do that, if it were possible, would change everything?
- What’s the most important decision you’re facing? What’s keeping you from making it?
- What topic are you hoping I won’t bring up?
- What part of your responsibilities are you avoiding right now?
- What do you wish you had more time to do?
If things become uncomfortable, Scott says, don’t steer away from the issue at hand. Don’t get distracted or go off topic.
Provide evidence of the problem – e.g. “figures are down by 10%”, “I’ve had feedback about bullying in your team” etc. Don’t dress it up, or skirt around it. Be honest.
You might get excuses or attempts to deflect the blame – “it’s the team/the systems/the process that’s at fault.” Or, “I wasn’t well that day.”
Don’t accept these excuses at face value. Continue to drill down. Be brave enough to say “I think those are excuses.”
Use the questions – and the answers you receive – to provoke learning. “How are you going to prevent this happening again?” “What support do you need?” “What can I do to help?”
Develop an action plan together to resolve the issue – this PDP template could help.
Use honesty to enrich relationships
By tackling tough challenges head on, with honesty and a degree of bravery, you can, Scott emphasises, enrich your relationships. This approach builds trust and provides a safe place to explore difficulties and to feel supported to address them.
What I like about this approach is that it’s like a coaching relationship – less boss and underling, more mentor and mentoree. And I think by encouraging managers to approach potentially difficult conversation as opportunities to learn rather than as opportunities to reprimand their reports, Scott reflects the changing landscape of leadership in today’s world.
Recommended reading: Fierce Conversations: Achieving success in work and in life, one conversation at a time by Susan Scott (published 2002).