I agree with Rory that a managers’ ability to have these difficult conversations is key to an organization’s success. The thing is: easier said than done.
So how can managers, or anyone for that matter, approach these conversations in a way that will create a positive outcome rather than a negative one that could impact the relationship. The 3 skills below are taken from Doug Stone and Bruce Patton’s Handling Difficult Conversations book. The golden skills are no silver bullet, but if practiced regularly can become a very effective way to deal with difficult conversations.
Difficult conversations are usually made even more difficult because of a lack of specific information/data and because they often end in a blame game. At the end of the day, no one has the legitimacy, even at work, to judge me as a person. However, managers are legitimate in assessing my performance.
1. Inquire. Ask how they see the situation, using as open ended questions as possible. This will provide you with relevant contextual information about how the other person sees whatever situation you need to discuss. Moreover, it shows that you are care enough about them to be willing to include them in solving the issue.
2. Acknowledge. Remember that the only judge as to whether you listened to someone is that someone, not you. Acknowledging shows you care about the other person point of view, makes sure you have understood it properly AND reassures them that they were listened to. There is a perfect example about the importance of acknowledging. We have all attended important one on one discussions before where the other person is typing away as we speak. What impression did this make on you? Did you feel listened to? The thing is, the other person might have listened and understood you, but because of the lack of acknowledgment, you probably left the room unsure as to whether you message really went through.
3. Advocate. Now comes the time to actually say what you have to say. In my opinion, this is the one most people struggle. People are entitle to express their opinions but they must be careful not to pass these opinions as absolute fact. Saying that “we must do this” or “You have to do that” closes the door on any differing opinion from yours, and literally shuts the conversation down. This is what makes these conversations even difficult. One person’s or manager’s opinion is based on his/her observation and facts that they have access to. Nobody is omniscient so nobody has an absolute answer, especially when working in highly complex environments like today’s corporate world. A more successful way to advocate is actually to acknowledge this. “In my opinion, ….” or “Based on my observation/the facts I gathered…”
The timing of advocacy is crucial. the underlying principle behind these 3 skills is that others will, usually, be more willing to listen to you once you have listened to them first. However, and that’s where mindfulness is important, if you realise that people are not ready to accept your opinion yet, go back to Inquiry to open them up and to identify potential other issues that might be impacting your conversation.