Two Steps to Get Hard Conversations Right Every Time
We have all had difficult conversations. This two-step method gives you a simple guide to make daunting talks easier, successful and win-win.
“You know that your work has not been up to our standard. We gave you feedback and a good amount of time to improve and that hasn’t worked out. I regret that we have to let you go.”
The above interaction is a lose-lose conversation that you never want to have. You and the individual both lose because you didn’t turn the situation around. Maybe the improvement wasn’t possible? Perhaps this was just a bad hire? People rarely come to work to do a lousy job. I have coached leaders at all levels to avoid this type of conversation by having a win-win discussion earlier. However, bringing up significant issues can be daunting, especially if you want positive outcomes and a lot is at stake.
Bringing up a touchy subject is filled with landmines. When you think a stressful talk might go wrong, you need to be prepared. Whether with a colleague, friend, subordinate, or boss “…not dealing with crucial conversations in an effective way can impact your career, your relationships, and most importantly, your health.” These are not the talks that occur spontaneously, in a meeting, or casual banter or heated exchanges. These are purposeful conversations that raise an issue. Some people avoid these, gloss them over, or react in an aggressive or hostile manner accomplishing nothing. You have to plan to navigate the complexity and sensitivity of the discussion successfully. The seeds for this method developed while being certified as an executive coach.
TWO STEPS TO WIN-WIN DISCUSSIONS
Being organized, systematic and explicit are the lynchpins of success. We have all had conversations that didn’t go the way we thought they should. Failure to map your talk in advance is a recipe for disaster or mediocre result. As you become comfortable and skilled in the two steps, you will be able to do them quickly. The two steps to a win-win discussion are:
STEP 1: DEFINE YOUR OBJECTIVE
To define your objective for the conversation, you must understand WHY you need to raise this issue and WHAT you want to achieve. The answers to these questions form the foundation for a win-win discussion.
WHY do you need to raise this issue? Some other questions that may help you understand your objectives might be: Why is this issue difficult to discuss? What has happened that is driving you to speak with them? Is there a pattern to this behavior? Is there a risk that your trust in the person is deteriorating? Is failing to address the actions putting their faith in you at risk? If you genuinely care about your working relationship, prepare carefully. The tone you establish early in the conversation lays the groundwork for a positive experience and a meaningful result.
WHAT is your real intention? Again, some helpful questions might be: What do you want to accomplish? Do you want to build trust? Do you want to Improve the relationship? Do you want to fix the issue? Achieving any of these would be positive. However, if you intend to win, or get your way, or dominate the other person, the first conversation you need to have is with yourself regarding your motives. Our true intention will emerge during the discussion, and we owe it to the other person to know how it might impact them before we have our talk.
STEP 2: CRAFT YOUR DISCUSSION
To construct your discussion requires you to craft clear sentences for each of the following:
• Issue: State the issue/situation in a short, non-judgmental sentence;
• Example: Give a specific example that illustrates the behavior or situation. If a pattern is developing, make it clear what pattern you see;
• Feel: Describe your emotions about the issue, e.g., worry, concern, frustration, impatience;
• Risks: Clarify what is at stake, what might be lost if the issue isn’t remedied; What might be gained if the issue is fixed;
• Share: Identify your contribution to the issue; what role YOU play in the matter. “I own this issue!” or “This issue developed because I did not communicate my expectations” or “I incorrectly assumed that you knew what was needed and that was unfair to you” This is critical! By acknowledging your ownership of the issue, you avoid the “blame game.” You signal to the other person you are in this together as colleagues and that this is a win-win conversation; above all you want to share in the solution;
• Action: Indicate your wish to resolve the issue and suggest a way that you can participate in helping the person resolve the issue; and
• Question: “What are your thoughts?” or “I’d like to hear your thoughts?” or “How can we work together to resolve this?”
I have coached leaders at all levels to use this method. Their conversations were up or down the chain of command as well as laterally with peers. With practice and success, they streamlined the preparation to just a few minutes; and, as they mastered the technique, they were able to arrange the statements in any order to refine a discussion that fit their personalities and styles. With experience, they used the method quickly and effectively for a wide array of conversations.
A REAL EXAMPLE
I had a problem. Earlier in my career, there was a conversation that I put off having that was causing me some anxiety. Not dealing with the issue was causing me to lose trust in my colleague. My behavior was becoming more abrupt and cold as a result. I wanted to fix this problem and have the conversation; but where to start.
I was leading a team responsible for preparing presentations and reports. These documents represented how our client perceived our worth. We needed the presentations for sales meetings and the reports to summarize the work our team completed for our clients. The documents needed to be clear, concise, and visually appealing. Most importantly they had to be accurate, detailed and timely. Failure to meet these objectives might jeopardize future contracts or continuation of current work.
The lead on this team was bright and ambitious and wanted to be promoted, soon. He wanted to be responsible for big projects. Most of all he wanted to be recognized by our firm and the clients. His ambitious goals flew in the face of the quality of his work. His writing was sprinkled with misspellings, missing words, ineffective punctuating, and on his PowerPoint presentation the graphics were simplistic, sloppy, and sometimes childish.
In my attempts to discuss this with him, I asked him to revise and improve. In each case, he got defensive and asked me how I might make changes. That led me to take back control of documents that were time sensitive and do the edits myself. The revisions required a fair bit of work, and I faced hours of edits, corrections, and additions. I reached a boiling point. At first, I avoided having the frank conversation because I didn’t want to demotivate him. I thought it was easier to do it myself. I knew that this was ineffective for me as well as detrimental to his ambitions to move up. I needed to make a change, and I had many options.
I could formally reprimand him; I could fire him; I could take him off my team. I could demand that he “get with the program” or suffer the consequences. I could continue to clean up after him. I could have said or done many things if I just wanted to do something regardless of the consequences or impact. However, I believed that if my team was failing, I was failing as a leader. I had to invest my time and energy to make my team more successful. I then learned this simple technique that would become a lifesaver.
Step 1: I developed my objective answering WHY and What to establish my focus for the talk.
Why? The work was not meeting quality standards and was late.
What? I wanted my team member to succeed, and my real intention was to help my team member improve their skills, gain added confidence, and reduce the burden of excessive editing thus allowing me to leverage my time.
Step 2: I crafted the script for my discussion. I test drove the script with a colleague to get feedback from someone who had no “skin in the game” and could give me insights on how the conversation felt on the receiving end. If you can look at the situation from the opposite perspective, you can test the impact that your words will have, and help you prepare better.
The script wasn’t long, and I felt better just speaking to anyone (an Interesting result and another powerful reminder of the impact that coaching and feedback can have). I was ready, and the feeling of having a weight removed from my shoulders gave me the confidence to address the issue constructively. Having reviewed the script, I rehearsed once more and planned a time to speak with my team member.
THE ACTUAL DISCUSSION
After some casual talk (and several attempts by my gremlins to keep me from saying anything) I had the conversation I had practiced stringing my statements into one coherent paragraph.
“Do you mind if I give you some feedback? I want to talk to you about your level of ownership for your work products. For instance, I did an extensive amount of clean-up work to get your proposal for General Corporation to World Class level. I feel disappointed and taken advantage of when your quality does not meet my expectations. You want to be recognized and rewarded and what is at stake is your progression to the next level. I may have contributed to this by jumping in and cleaning up your proposals instead of helping you to be able to do the work. What I would like, is that you edit your work and give yourself time to bring it up to World Class. What are your thoughts?”
Our conversation was open, frank, and constructive. He agreed that he needed help with both time management and the editing process in general. He had been reluctant to admit that he wasn’t clear on how to go about editing. I agreed to help, and we left the talk confident that we would be successful together. My behavior towards him changed, and with some considerable effort on both our parts, he performed consistently at “world class” level. I had assumed that he knew as much about the process as me. I was wrong, and this was the root of the issue. A win-win approach averted a discussion that could have become hurtful or confrontational. This experience taught me a valuable lesson and helped me have more effective conversations in the future. Careful preparation using these two simple steps was a worthwhile investment in our working relationship.
Having a simple tool at your fingertips to communicate more effectively in challenging situations can enhance your confidence and leadership skills regardless of where you fit on the organization chart. As participants in any workplace, we often need to deliver difficult news, address an issue, or raise a complaint or criticism. Our objective is to have productive conversations that leave both parties whole and add more trust to the relationship. Whether a coach, a co-worker, friend, or a family member these two steps will help you raise an issue in a positive, non-threatening, non-judgmental, win-win manner without giving up on them.