As soon as you have a team of people you lead, you are likely to be faced with having to have what’s affectionately known as a “difficult conversation.”

Let’s be honest, it’s a crappy thing to do no matter how experienced you are, and really, if you ever get to the point where you don’t get that sick feeling before having one, it’s time to step away from leading people. Having said all this, it is possible to have these conversations and have people walk away with their dignity and understanding that it was necessary and done in a fair way.

I know this because I’ve done exactly that!

So, have I got your attention already?

Difficult conversations can happen around addressing conflict, around complaints or grievances, when you’re delivering bad news such as employment ending and when you need to communicate tough business decisions.  What it boils down to is that if there is high risk, opposing opinions and strong emotions – it’s a difficult conversation.

Here are my 5 principles of difficult conversations…

  1. Make the conversation real and come out from behind your mask

  2. Be prepared

  3. Be present and focused

  4. Take responsibility for your emotional wake, and

  5. Use the power of silence

So, what does this look like in the real world?

Above all, act like a human!  You are dealing with human emotions, insecurities and fears.  if you are proposing a meeting with someone about one of the topics that fall under “difficult” it is going to be emotional.  I’m not saying wear your heart on your sleeve, rather be authentic.

Be prepared.  Make sure you are clear about what you want to discuss, have dot points and detail written down so you focus on the facts. Have everything you need to answer questions clearly and objectively. Focus on the issue, not the person.

Be present and focused.  Allow enough time.  Make sure you are somewhere private where you can hold a confidential discussion without everyone hearing (and seeing) the meeting plays out.  Don’t slot these conversations into a 15-minute quick catch up.  You must allow sufficient time to calmly talk through all the issues, address questions and work together on a solution or plan to resolve the issue.  You should also be prepared (depending on what the issue is) for the person to need time to process, perhaps go for a walk or to have some time alone. People respond differently and you need to respect that.

“Be responsible for your own emotional wake”

When I say this, I mean to own the outcome.  Don’t take a flippant approach and think – well that’s done, move on.  Human emotions and ego are fragile, and no one likes to be confronted with this sort of discussion. So, make sure all parties walk away with their dignity intact and feeling emotionally safe.  It is possible if you handle it well. Understand that you may also feel emotional.  It’s quite normal to feel nervous, a bit edgy and sick.  Afterwards, you may feel drained, particularly if it is a discussion around significant issues or something like redundancy or termination of employment.  Make sure there’s someone trustworthy nearby you can lean on if you need to debrief afterwards.

Using the power of silence is a seriously underrated technique.

It’s also incredibly tricky to nail, particularly when you’re in an emotionally charged or awkward environment.  Human nature often sees us wanting to fill gaps in with the conversation.  However, believe me when I say that once you have said what you need to say, finish, and then just shut up!  Allow time for the other person time to process what you’ve said and then respond.  Don’t keep on talking for the sake of it.

Of course, there’s a bit more to it than this.  Depending on the issue you may need advice from a Human Resources professional and it’s important that you have clear policies in place to protect your business and your people.  Having said that, if handled well and before issues become bigger than Ben Hur, these conversations can often resolve the situation early on.

We’ve put together a downloadable document that outlines the conversation framework we use, click here to grab your copy.

If you want to chat more about levelling up your leadership or people skills in any area – reach out, it’s what KTSB is passionate about!

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