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Don't duck difficult conversations

Handling difficult conversations is a frequent topic in coaching sessions. For some people, this might never have been an issue, but for a lot of people there is a level of discomfort in approaching conversations where you know the person you are speaking to might not agree with you or like the information being shared. These conversations can come in many forms, from giving constructive feedback, managing underperforming team members or suppliers, challenging more senior stakeholders, asking for something from your line manager or maybe giving disappointing news to someone about promotions, pay or even redundancy. Being a leader is easy when everything is going well. However, once things get difficult, how you handle these conversations can set apart a great leader from others.

Unfortunately there is no magic solution that you can learn from a book, or blog. It is something you can only learn by doing and adjusting for each individual you are interacting with. Here are some of the things I have found have helped me or my clients to overcome the fear of the conversation and get the outcome you’re seeking.

  1. Don’t put off the conversation - this will cause you or the other person, or both, more issues. If it is a performance issue you are seeking to address, the sooner you tackle it, the better for you as well as the person having the opportunity to improve and the team as a whole. If you put it off, you (and others in the team) are likely to be doing extra work to fill the gaps and you are setting a precedent about what will be tolerated to others around you that is not helpful. You are also potentially putting yourself in a difficult position and limiting your options if you do then want to take any action should the performance not improve.

  2. Be clear on what you want to achieve and allow the other person to know what the aim of the conversation is ahead of time - don’t surprise them out of context. This is true whether you are giving feedback to your team members or making a request of someone more senior. Providing an agenda can ensure they come to the discussion with the right frame of mind and focus on the topic at hand.

  3. Keep calm and keep the discussion factual and evidence based rather than personal - be clear on what needs to change, what’s the upside, what is the impact if nothing changes? Is it something that can be fixed? Is it a question of fit or expectations? The culture you are operating in and who you are dealing with will dictate how directly you provide feedback. If you are not sure, ask for advice from a trusted friend or colleague. It might take time and repeated conversations for the recipient to accept the feedback and adjust their behaviour or choose another option.

  4. Consider documenting the discussion - this can help ensure a common understanding and agreement on what was discussed and agreed. It can also be better to measure whether or not you have had any impact from the discussion by tracking actions and, if needed, use organisational processes to help manage poor performance.

  5. Have empathy with the other person - being able to appreciate the other person’s position and their need to process the information or request is a positive here. Give them space for emotion and reaction as they do. It does not mean you have to move away from or soften your message to still be human and open.

  6. Embrace the discomfort - accept that you are not going to enjoy the interaction but hold on to your belief that the outcome is worth it for all concerned.

  7. Don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t go to plan - everyone is different and reacts in different ways. What works with one person might not work with someone else. Try to treat it as a learning experience for yourself and it might need a follow up after you’ve both had time to reflect to clarify understanding or agree next steps.

Where can having a coach help? A coach will provide you with a safe space to explore different approaches and highlight potential areas to consider that you hadn’t looked at, as well as challenging and supporting you to have the conversation. They might offer the opportunity to practice beforehand and then encourage you to reflect afterwards on how it went and what comes next. As with most things your coach is in your corner to help you succeed. Get in touch if you're considering how a coach might help you.



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