All of us have been on the receiving end of a difficult conversation at work, and many have had to deliver a hard message to others. Unless you are totally inhuman, none of these are painless, and we all wish we had some way to make them more meaningful and more effective. We all want to feel good about our work and relationships, and we want others to feel that same way.
During my many years in business and as a consultant, I have struggled with this dilemma myself and tried to offer clients the insights they needed, but never had a good answer. Thus I was pleased to see this topic addressed well in a new book, “Can We Talk? Seven Principles for Managing Difficult Conversations at Work,” by Roberta Chinsky Mauson.
Roberta is a recognized thought leader on improving employee engagement and has consulted with many top-tier companies and achieved some great results. I agree with her principles, and outline them here, for approaching any conversation at work, especially difficult ones, and making them positive and productive, rather than emotional and confrontational:
1. Build confidence by trusting yourself and the other party.
Build your confidence first and present your side of the conversation in a way to keep the other person engaged and open enough to really hear your thoughts. You also need to take some time to build a trusting relationship with the other person, before jumping in and speaking your mind.
The best way to build your own confidence is to solidify your purpose at work and focus on results around that purpose. It’s hard to be confident in what you’re doing if you’re not sure why you’re doing it. When you show confidence, people will trust and follow you.
2. Find clarity by making your point clearly and listening.
If you want others to hear you loud and clear, be direct in your communication, choose your words carefully, and stick to the facts. Enter all discussions with an open mind, park your assumptions, and listen deeply. Remember that what someone else hears is dependent on their perspective, not yours.
Too often, the main objective for people who are about to enter a tricky conversation is to get it over as quickly as possible. With that as an objective, you won’t make your point clearly, and you may not listen. Practice your message ahead of time, and stick to it.
3. Have compassion by being empathetic and understanding.
Empathy and compassion are the impressions you display of how well you understand or feel what the other person is experiencing. These include not only the words spoken, but more importantly, your nonverbal cues and body language. Usually, it helps to slow down your speech rather than speed up.
4. Have curiosity by asking questions rather than shutting down.
Being curious and asking questions to learn more about a particular situation shows the other party that you’re interested in what they have to say and helps to move the conversation forward. Be sure to not cross that fine line between coming across as curious versus sounding judgmental.
5. Find compromise and earn respect by respecting others.
When seeking common ground, focus on the “why,” keep your eyes on the prize, be open to all alternatives, and be willing to make concessions. Try to make the outcome a “win-win” rather than a “win-lose” result. Always be respectful of alternate views and perspectives that do not match yours.
6. Show credibility, as your word is only as good as your actions.
Credibility isn’t a trait you are born with, rather it’s something you earn day in and day out. It’s your behaviors that matter– not your intentions. Remember that people don’t work for companies, they work for people they trust. Improve your credibility by being consistent, and owning your mistakes.
7. Display courage by navigating the obstacles despite fear.
Courage is the determination to move forward despite the fear. The sooner you are able to deal with discomfort, the easier it will be for you to initiate a high-stakes conversation. Not taking action is never a solution, but not every conversation is worth having. In all cases, summon the courage to stand up for yourself.
As you can see, there’s a lot that needs to go into handling a challenging work situation, when your goal is to have a productive discussion and need to continue to maintain a relationship with the other person.
Since these principles often take time to have an impact, you need to start your thinking and focus now.