“Er… um, John, I need to talk to you about… something…”
Of all of the situations I have been hired to work on over the past decade, the majority of them related to a breakdown in relationships between a manager and a member of their team. Somewhere along the lines, difficult conversations have lived up to their name and everyone was left feeling upset and frustrated.
This newsletter highlights some powerful questions that you can use to help someone prepare for what is euphemistically called a ‘difficult conversation’. They are aimed at assisting the person to think through in advance all of the possible landmines that might explode and plan ways to either avoid or manage to these to the best extent.
Why might conversations become ‘difficult’?
By a ‘difficult’ conversation we mean any interaction where a manager has to give an employee feedback that could trigger a negative emotional reaction from them.
For the person on the receiving end, hearing negative stuff about oneself has the potential to upset or annoy them. They may interpret it as a threat to their identity, self-esteem, competence or how they see themselves in the workplace. Other variables also such as the level of trust and rapport between them and the feedback-giver also play into how triggered they might feel, react and behave.
For the person giving the negative messages, they too are prone to reactivity. For a start, they may already be feeling irritated or frustrated over the substantive issues. That will negatively influence their attitude and how they come across, perhaps sounding aggressive or confrontative. On the other hand, they might just be fearful or anxious about the other person’s reaction. That could lead to watering down their key message or fudging the issues.
How might you help them prepare?
The sets of questions below are designed to be used as part of a preparatory coaching session. They are aimed at helping the person reflect in advance on all aspects of a potentially contentious interaction. These include:
Content: this is about getting clarity on what the substantive issue(s) are and the key message around this.
‘Landmines’: this is about having thought through and understood the underlying emotional and possibly identity issues for both themselves and the other person and how they might deal with these.
It would be essential of course that the questions are asked from a coach-like stance of curiosity and exploration, with a view to stimulating their thinking and helping them gain useful insight.
Help them get clear on what they need to discuss
- What are the observed facts/behaviours that you believe you need to raise?
- What specifically is it you believe they have done/said…?
- What are the unmet expectations you had?
- What’s at stake here for you in this situation?
- How do these issues impact on your working relationship with this person?
- What sort of changes might you want from this person’s behaviour/attitude?
- What is most important to you about how this conversation goes?
- How much trust is there between both of you for having this kind of conversation?
- What are the benefits of raising this issue with this person at this point in time? Are there any risks or downsides?
Help them explore their own ‘landmines’
- What is going through your mind right now about this situation?
- You mention you are feeling frustrated/annoyed/very angry/humiliated …how might those reactions be impacting on your views of this situation?
- How might they impact on how you talk to the other person about these issues?
- What assumptions might you be making about the other person?
- How are those assumptions helpful to you?
- How might those assumptions be affecting how you will relate to them in this conversation?
Help them explore the other person’s ‘landmines’
- What might be at stake for them in this conversation?
- What expectations might they have of you or their relationship with you that this conversation could challenge?
- How might that impact on them?
- What assumptions might they be making about your intentions here?
- What are your intentions here?
- How can you ensure that they accurately interpret your intentions in having this conversation with them?
Questions to plan the conversation
- What are the priority points/key concerns that you need to convey to them?
- What is it you want to be sure they understand about ‘where you are coming from’?
- What do you not want them to assume about you?
- What do you want to convey to them about your intentions?
- How will you help them understand your positive intentions?
- What might get in the way of them seeing your positive intentions towards them?
- How can you say that in a way that they can hear it rather than be defensive?
- What might be their key needs and concerns?
- What might they want you to understand about them?
- How will you demonstrate you’ve understood where they are coming from?
- How can you start in a neutral and non-blaming way?
Questions to plan how to stay on track
- What might they say or react that would take you off track in this meeting?
- How will you manage that?
- What aspect of what you say could take them off track/cause them to be defensive or confrontative?
- How will they know that you are open to hearing their point of view?
- What do you want to be conscious of not doing during this meeting?
- What other times do you feel you have handled meetings like this well? What was it you were doing that worked well?
- What do you want to be conscious of doing differently in this meeting compared to other times [when meetings with OP didn’t go so well]?
- How will you know that this meeting was successful?
- What are the options as to how you will both go forward after this meeting – what would need to be agreed between you both?
‘Difficult conversations’ are an occupational hazard for Managers in every working environment. Supportive and thorough preparation in advance can however assist in ensuring they not only remain constructive but can also be a useful learning tool to build their capacity and confidence for future ‘difficult conversations’
Got an issue you are grappling with…? Mary Rafferty’s services include coaching, mediation and training in conflict related areas such as mastering difficult conversations and navigating tricky relationships.