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Difficult Conversations Part 2

Preparing for the other person’s response…

One of the things that stops managers entering into difficult conversations, feedback or chats about performance is an anxiety over how the other person may respond.  What if they quit?  Cry?  Argue?  Shout?  Take it really badly?  Disagree and I can’t hold my own?  What if they say XYZ?

And so as a learning designer, facilitator or coach, we have the opportunity to help managers prepare for those eventualities – and for those they cannot even imagine.  The power here is in reducing the irrational fear.  Notice how our fear about something is usually worse than the reality of that bad thing happening.

For example, managers share stories about someone quitting and it being the best thing that ever happened for the team.  Other managers have experienced people crying and found that it really wasn’t that bad – you just deal with it, like anything else in life.

Sharing these stories and asking delegates to consider their own experiences of reality not being as bad as we fear, enables a more rational conversation.  What will you plan to do if the person cries?  Argues?  Threatens to quit?

Because the fact is that the question “what if he argues back?” is not generally explored and answered as a question.  It is used as a threatening statement to ourselves to say, “don’t bother starting the conversation, it may not end well.”  Actually helping managers work through those questions and realise they have answers, is extremely empowering.

Here are some classic responses we’ve heard managers come up with in small group work…

What if they cry?
Ask them if they want to take five minutes / go to the bathroom / get a tissue, then suggest we come back to the conversation when they feel ready.  Don’t let them off the hook though, make sure we come back to the conversation if it’s five minutes, hours or days later.
What if they argue back or disagree about the issue?
Stay calm and find out more about what it is they disagree with and maybe what they do agree with.  Ask questions like, “tell me more about what it is you think about this” and “help me understand, when you say you disagree, what do you mean?”
 
Rather than trying to convince the other person they’re wrong, work to understand how they think they’re right.  When we understand the other person’s thinking better, we can ask further questions like, “what impact do you think that has on the team?” or “how does that relate to the business priorities we’re working on?”
What if they threaten to quit?
Maybe this wouldn’t be such a bad thing.  But we could find out what their concerns are that are making them want to quit.
 
What is it they want and can we realistically offer that?  One manager shared a story of a colleague who wanted to avoid all people management, so that worked fine, they found a technical specialist role for them and everyone was happy.  But if what the colleague wants is never to be challenged on their behaviour, then they probably won’t last long!
What if they say something I’m not prepared for?
This is arguably the most critical question, as it is the one that throws us the most.  One manager shared a story of a difficult conversation where a team member had ignored specific instructions in an email and gone against the manager’s requests multiple times.
 
The manager raised this as an issue, prepared for arguments about who was right or wrong and how things should be done, but the colleague simply said, “I never saw those emails.”  The manager was flabbergasted!  How could this person have missed that email every time?  Surely they were lying!  But what could the manager do?  Completely shocked by this statement, the manager had no idea what to say so said, “ok, well make sure you check emails from me in future,” and that was that.  Afterwards the manager was so upset, “why didn’t I say more, challenge them, ask them how they would make sure this did not happen in future?”
 
The key is to give yourself time to think in these moments, so many managers come up with a get-out clause like, “I think we need to explore this more but I need some time to think it through, let’s meet again tomorrow to discuss.”  Or if you think you can get there quicker, “ok I could do with a coffee, let’s take five minutes.”

Of course there are no right or wrong responses here, this is all about simply feeling prepared.  It is no good scripting out some feedback, to then feel completely unprepared for the unscripted response from the other person.  So encourage managers to have a few stock phrases and questions up their sleeves for these conversations.  The ones we hear that people find most useful are:

Can I just clarify, when you say, do I understand it right that you mean….?

Tell me more about that….. Help me understand….

So what do you really think?

What impact could that have on other people?

What would you do now if you were me?

Let’s take some time out to get some clear thinking, how about the same time tomorrow?

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