When I start thinking about the term ‘tough conversations’, it brings to mind the movie ‘Iron Lady’ with visions of Meryl Streep playing a very committed Margaret Thatcher taking stances on trade unions and driving through violent riots. On reflection, I wonder if this is because the movie is so memorable, or because we’ve become programmed to expect a fight when we think of having ‘tough conversations’ in the workplace.
Is this programming what prevents us from being able to have effective and positive tough conversations at work? Is it the images of riots, arguments and weeks, months or even years of potential conflict, running around in our complex minds that prevent us from doing and saying the things required to engage in an effective tough conversation… or indeed prevents us from having the conversation at all?
It’s fair to say that every single person has had to, will have to, or should have to have a tough conversation at work: giving someone feedback about poor performance or attitude, discussing differing opinions on the execution of projects, informing someone they are redundant or have not passed probation, handing in a resignation, dealing with bullying in the workplace, confronting a colleague who is behaving inappropriately or who has upset you, managing conflict between team members… the list goes on and on. It’s also fair to say that some of us, particularly those in management, have had to have more of these tough conversations than others.
I am one of those unfortunate individuals that seems to have had to have more of these conversations than most. In fact, having worked in numerous organisations obsessed with delivering high quality outcomes on time and on budget, I’d challenge any person to rival the amount of ‘tough’ conversations I’ve had to have. This doesn’t necessarily make me good at it, in fact it’s fair to say that when I first started having tough conversations I was abominable at it, and it felt (at times) like I had created carnage for weeks to come (or at the very least did more harm than good).
One story that comes to mind is when I first became a manager some time ago. I had taken on a new staff member, who was highly experienced, had delivered an impressive interview but quickly became known to be somewhat of a ‘loose cannon’ in the organisation. The role revolved around compliance based training, but rather than train what was written in the manual, they chose to teach what they ‘thought’ was the best way to do things. To cut a long story short, I was nervous about giving a more experienced person feedback so tried to make the conversation go as fast as I could and in the process blurted out all the things that were ‘not company standard’ and then closed the conversation. The reaction involved screaming in the middle of a very public venue, threats of bullying and the smashing of a mobile phone (thankfully theirs, not mine!). If that doesn’t come close to the corporate version of rioting, I’m not sure what does. If only I could turn back time and have that conversation again.
Thankfully over many years of practice I’ve managed to avoid similar outcomes by applying what I’ve distilled from years of mistakes and successes. By creating a set of rules that generally (and I put this with a caveat – an assumption that the conversation is with someone sober, reasonable and sound of mind), ensures whatever the tough conversation is about, whilst still uncomfortable, will produce an effective and carnage free outcome that believe it or not, every now and then, ends in a thanks for being supportive and honest. I thought I’d share them:
Be very clear on your intention before going into the conversation – if you’re not clear about the intention, then you’re not ready to have the conversation. If you have a clear goal or intention in mind, then you are likely to achieve the outcome required.
Sometimes, regardless of your preparation, positive intent and the care with which you approach the other person, a tough conversation just doesn’t go as well as it could have. The most important thing to do is find ways of not letting it affect you physically or mentally. Not all people want to be reasonable, honest or find resolution and that’s ok, we know these people exist… and if they didn’t exist neither would war. You need to be able to separate yourself from the problem and the reaction. For me, it’s about reminding myself that anyone trying to cause harm to others must be very unhappy with themselves… in other words, I turn my frustration into sympathy. Others have told me that a good red also helps! Whatever it is… find your ‘back on track’ solution and use it, because if you don’t, you risk taking this experience into your next tough conversation, and producing another ‘less than best’ outcome.
Some of you may be thinking ‘this all sounds easier said than done’, so my final piece of advice is don’t avoid any opportunity to practice. Having a courageous conversation before it becomes a ‘tough one’ makes it easier for everyone.
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