When people anticipate a dialogue with a perceived downside-outcome, it causes anxiety eliciting a negative emotional response. This type of dialogue is called a “difficult conversation” and it occurs whenever one or both people involved in the dialogue anticipates a less than optimal scenario with that other person in the conversation.

We are all human. We have emotions and react to criticism whether solicited or not. This anticipated perception of negativity is a barrier to open and honest dialogue. This scenario may result in people concealing a portion of the truth regarding a situation and hence the wrong solution to a problem or worse, a perpetuating bad situation and/or additional issues to resolve.

Most people want to “look good” and will do so at any cost. At ANY COST! Unknowingly, sabotage in the environment becomes prevalent to protect ones self-worth and to try and control what others perceive of us.

If transparency is a strategic outcome or heart-felt desire, guiding people in preparation for a difficult conversation is one tool to add to your development best practices.

“Difficult conversations” can take place when giving feedback about:

  • Poor performance
  • Inappropriate behavior
  • Why promotion did not occur
  • Why bonus or raise did not occur
  • Etc.

Each conversation should be approached differently depending on:

  • The individual
  • Circumstances
  • Magnitude of the behavior or performance
  • Etc.

Know why you need to have the conversation:

  • What is your desired outcome?
  • What is the message you want to be heard?
  • How might you respond in a similar situation?

You should also anticipate the possible outcomes and consequences of your conversation:

  • Possible reactions by individual
  • Possible change in your current relationship with that person
  • Possible effects on person’s self-confidence, productivity, etc.

Preparing for “difficult conversations”:

  • Have all documentation prepared and available
  • Choose a neutral venue
  • Be cognizant of timing (e.g., time of day)
  • Have specific examples supporting the conversation
  • Describe the individual’s performance
    • Begin with what the individual did well
    • Then discuss what the individual can do differently
    • Ask the individual about his/her own observations

Be clear and specific in the desired new behaviors. Discuss approach with individual and ensure a collaborative effort and measurement expectations:

  • How will success be measured?
  • Modification begins immediately
  • Deadline to see new level of behavior and activity
  • Set dates for subsequent meetings to share feedback

Most importantly, ensure you come from a place of compassion. You may be angry or you may have been affected by the individual’s respective behavior. They are human and you are human as well. No one is perfect! No one! Think about how you would want to be approached and how you would want the information presented to you. Although it’s not always the best metric, it’s a good bet. Note that there some of us that like the Band-aid ripped off quickly, hence, minimizing the pain, rather than a slow deliberate effort. Challenge without being antagonistic, offensive or demeaning. Work to be a teacher and mentor.

Having “difficult conversations” in the workplace are necessary. Open and honest communication makes for better relationships resulting in an optimal work environment. Recognizing the conversation is important and preparing can make all the difference in turning a “difficult conversation” into a productive and collaborative effort, stress-free.

The choice is yours!

Stuart Friedman is president of Progressive Management Associates. He is a business visionary who guides organizations through cultural shifts. He promotes environments that inspire collaboration, transparency in the pursuit of strategic outcomes and heart-felt desires. Reach Stuart via email: stuart@pma-co.com