After tweeting about possible blogs on the subject of difficult conversations, the lovely Andy Mildner of Azure Financial Services asked "Why not write about how those difficult conversations turn out not to be so difficult after all?" Good thinking Batman, said I, and spent last night thinking about just that.
It's true when we allow ourselves time to think too much about having 'that talk' with someone we risk falling into anxiety, fretfulness and overthinking the position. By trying too hard to be tactful, diplomatic, persuasive or even express our anger, we often fudge it- leaving a trail of confusion or conflict in our wake.
So, given that you feel justified in raising an issue, have done your research (please tell me you've done your research) and know what you want from the 'chat', what's making you reluctant?
Fear of being shot down in flames? Fear of upsetting the other person? Fear of losing confidence, face or position?
Fear, full stop?
Let's think about those times when you have to criticise someone because they messed up. What could you do to help you bite that bullet?
Give it to them straight. Tough messages should be simply and clearly stated from the start. Prepare well, focus on a few key points, and don't waffle. Sounding apologetic dilutes the impact of what you're really saying. Plus, once that hard message is out there, nothing else seems as scary, does it?
Be realistic. You can't ever lose the stress you'll feel about having that conversation completely, but you can cut it down to size. Weigh up the alternatives- by not saying anything, will they think it was OK to do what they did? Would the mistake or behaviour be worse next time? Would their behaviour be replicated by others? Could it have a wide-reaching impact on your team, business, customers or clients? Could it damage your reputation?
How about the other person? Will they be left confused and wondering how in Hell they got away with such a monumental error? Will they think you useless for avoiding bringing it up?
Is avoiding a few minutes of pain worth that risk?
It's not a monologue. You are not giving them your Hamlet. Remember they will need to contribute too, so let them speak freely and for Heaven's sake- LISTEN. They need to feel a degree of control too, and denying them that makes for a confrontational and disagreeable experience all round.
You can drive the 'feel' of the conversation by using a good pace and tone of voice, speaking at normal volume. You can pre-empt some distractions, objections and blame- but not all, so don't beat yourself up on that score.
If you're offering criticism, don't point fingers. It's not a playground. Refrain from raising your voice, using bad language or appearing physically imposing or domineering. Make your comments constructive, and give examples of what you'd like to have seen happen. Oh, and don't do it publicly- nobody will thank you for that.
Your view is just that. Each person involved in the situation has a different viewpoint and will tell their own story about what happened. Try not to judge who's right and wrong, work together to create better results in the future.
Show them you heard. To ensure everyone gets it, and to let people know you're listening, reflect back to them what they're telling you. They'll be grateful that you heard their words. Listen for repeated ones, too. Don't ignore the fact that they've used a word two or three times- that's what they need you to hear.
Steel yourself- this could get messy. Difficult conversations are difficult for them, too. They can result in deflection, aggression, denial, blaming, arguments and tears. Sometimes, they are met with stony silence. You can't- and shouldn't- control others' reactions, but you can be prepared to handle them. (About the silence thing- when that's happened to me, I just let it hang there. Learn to be comfortable with silences. You'd be surprised how often they lend a little focus and defuse a situation.)
The above tips can help you prepare for and manage a difficult conversation, but you have to take the leap of faith. That's where these come into their own...
Pretend it's a month, a year, or thirty years from now. Visualise the impact of not having the conversation. Imagine the outcome of having it, and seeing great results. Put it into perspective- what seems tough today often seems nothing at all when you put yourself into your own future.
They may be waiting for you to say it. They probably know there's a problem and are dreading having to be the one to raise it. They may be relieved that you did.
Hey, they're just people. You are not an ogre, they know that. But remember- nor are they. Nobody actively wants this chat, but it has to happen. Grownups get it.
I know we should also consider how we react when we are called upon at no notice at all to hande a sticky situation (stickier than when Sticky the stick insect got stuck on a sticky bun, thank you Edmund Blackadder.) Often what we view as 'thinking on our feet' and rushing to a solution without really talking through the issues and emotions in play can come across as wearing a hat reading 'I'D REALLY RATHER NOT HANDLE THIS' in neon letters.