Difficult conversations – seven steps to success

As leaders, managers, and HR professionals you will run into situations where you will be the bearer of bad news to colleagues and employees. This is a challenging situation for most of us and the possibilities to go wrong are many and perilous. Let me take you through a seven-step model on how you can manage difficult conversations.

Hard conversations in themselves are demanding. They will also lay bare to the organization how you act in tough situations and how you treat employees. As much as hiring and onboarding are important parts of the impression an employer gives, so are the actions at the end of an employee lifecycle.

Hard conversations in themselves are demanding. They will also lay bare to the organization how you act in tough situations and how you treat employees.

Unfortunately, challenging or difficult conversations often get less love and attention – even if they are one of the best opportunities to showcase your company’s culture! Often, they are actually what the employee will remember and talk about the most. The result? Your employer brand and all the work you have put into building it are on the line. 

So, how do you bring the bad news with empathy and fairness without watering down your message? 

Want to talk more about tough conversations?

1. Make up your mind

Are you going to let someone go, is someone not getting the promotion they thought, or are you shutting down an office? Of course, there are many things that can and need to happen in work-life. These decisions need to be informed and validated, so make sure to spend enough time to get all the insight you need. Talk to the people involved, make lists, talk to colleagues, assess the situation. The commitment you’re making is potentially life-changing for your teammate, so you better make sure you feel as grounded as possible.

2. Prepare for a tough conversation

The time for feedback and dialogue is over. You have made a decision. You are not going to have a debate and you need to stay on the designated course during the conversation. This calls for a clearly stated outcome that needs to be as condensed and free from excess embroidery as possible. Along with this, you need to be able to phrase what’s going to happen next for the employee, for example how the process ahead looks.

3. Set the stage for the talk

Book a meeting with the employee and allow for time. Make sure you can sit undisturbed, shut down your phone and turn off notifications. General common sense applies to not have difficult conversations just before vacations or weekends. You want time to follow up with the employee to make sure they are OK. Again, this conversation is potentially very dramatic for the team member and you want to make sure they land as soft as possible. 

4. Be straight in difficult conversations

Avoid framing the message with too much depth and explanations about the situation at hand. In addition, don’t talk about the good sides of the employee, how much you don’t want to do this, and wish it was different or chit-chat about the weather. This only dilutes the message and makes it open to interpretations and confusion. This is a conversation about one thing only – stick to it!

5. Allow emotions – but don’t get caught up

Allow for emotions to surface but don’t let it change the conversation and don’t try to comfort them. You need to let the employee feel what they are feeling –  without allowing it to take over the conversation. Take a short break to gather if feelings like anger or sadness become overwhelming. Show empathy for the reactions but understand that in this situation you need to stay the course. The same goes for arguing or reasoning. Allow it and listen but always come back to your decision. Remember we did the preparations and we are sure about the decisions we are making.

This is by far the hardest part since intuitively most of us want to comfort people in distress. It becomes easy to sway and play down the message you’re giving. DON’T. Drifting in your message at this stage will only dilute it.

6. Summarize and set the course

Always end the meeting by repeating the message again – it cannot be said enough times! For example, give a timeline of the next steps and what’s going to happen. If you have any written notices or information to give out, this is the time to present them. Make sure to have time to answer any practical questions that need to be cleared and always give the opportunity to book a follow-up meeting. It is difficult to get tough news and at the same time understand a process. Sometimes a few days to land gives enough time to be able to be more amenable to the practical things that often follow.

7. Inform the organization

Make sure to have a communication plan. Changes affect everyone and get talked about (a lot) so make sure that you communicate the changes and timelines. Remember that more transparency is often better and do not dehumanize the conversation. Nobody wants to be reduced to a number, a budget post, or an FTE. In addition – if this is how you present changes, people in the organization will get the message and all that sweet “we are a family” culture will drain, fast.

Was that everything about tough conversations?

There is of course much more to this than just the difficult conversations. Big changes often imply:

  • The journey that leads you to taking a hard decision 
  • Negotiations with for example trade unions
  • Change management as an aftermath of transformation

As you understand, each and every one of these processes carries its own pitfalls and possibilities. In order to achieve positive evolution, you need to think carefully and address those issues.

At The Talent Company, we have experience and expertise in organizational changes, both big and small. We know the importance of doing it right. You only get one shot!

Do you want to talk about the changes your organization is confronting?

Did you like this article? In that case, you should check out Should you hire for humility

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