We all have to face up to difficult conversations, especially when we’re in roles of leadership and responsibility.  If we take time to think through the situation and prepare for the desired outcome, challenging situations become less stressful and less likely to erupt into conflict.

Breaking bad news

My clients often come to coaching sessions wanting to think about how they can pass on unwelcome messages to a member of their team. Perhaps someone has fallen below expectation in their performance review or isn’t getting the promotion or bonus they’d hoped for. Maybe complaints have been made about their behaviour towards customers or colleagues.

These are some of the approaches I discuss with them:

  • Schedule enough time for the conversation. It may be tempting to rush a difficult discussion but this isn’t fair and is often counter-productive
  • Choose an environment which will make the other person feel as comfortable as possible – edgy people are more likely to get aggressive
  • Be clear about what you want to get out of the conversation, e.g. for the person to hear that there are problems with their performance and they need to remedy this. Include deadlines for them to make the changes e.g. before the next meeting/review
  • Consider how you can support the person to hear the negative news without switching off and becoming defensive e.g. acknowledge their other skills, such as their ability to adapt, and offer extra training or support to help them achieve the required changes
  • Use evidence and avoid generalisations such as ‘always’ and ‘never’. ‘We have received five complaints from members of the public who said you were abrupt’ is much better than ‘You’re always abrupt’
  • Really listen to what they have to say. Acknowledge their feelings but stay consistent e.g.  ‘I hear you’re finding this difficult but you do have to make these changes…’
  • If someone gets really upset or angry, suggest taking a break.  This can be 15 minutes for a   cup of tea, or agreeing to resume the conversation the following day
  • Seek support (after the meeting) from your HR department if you feel the person can’t or won’t listen to what you are saying

Don’t be too hard on yourself if it didn’t go like clockwork.  Difficult conversations are difficult! My clients often report that a person has changed their behaviour even after they refused to accept there was any type of problem.

Henrietta Bond is an experienced coach and communications specialist. Henrietta works with clients all around the world who want to be truly effective leaders – to motivate and empower individuals, deliver effective messages, manage conflict and challenging situations, and draw out the highest potential of their teams.