How to Turn Challenging Conversations into Trusting Relationships at Work
No one could believe it – Radio Shack let thousands of people go and they did it through email! Most people dislike delivering bad news in person, and will find any way to avoid it.
Making eye contact with another person who you care about, and to whom you need to deliver a difficult message – which you fear may be upsetting, hurt and create disappointment – is one of the most difficult things for human beings to do. So, rather than confronting these challenges, we often look to alternatives which at the time seem to be less challenging or hurtful but later turn out to cause more pain.
Discussing / Delivering / Moving Through Bad News
Clouding the Issue
Two years ago I was asked to coach a CEO who was one of 6 CEOs reporting to the Chairman of the Corporation. The difficult message the Chairman wanted to give this leader was that if she didn’t raise the performance of her team, she would be asked to leave.
Rather than giving that message directly, the Chairman wrote a six page report providing feedback. 98% of the message was positive, stating how good the leader was. Embedded in the document were 2 to 3 lines, briefly stating that the chairman expected a higher level of performance from the leader. When I asked the leader what this document communicated to her and what she would do as a result, she said she was doing everything right and therefore was on the right track for her bonus.
Failing to be candid with others is one of the major reasons why people ultimately leave companies. When we think we are doing the right things, we keep doing them. When key messages are embedded into larger messages, they get lost, are “sandwiched in” and can be easily discounted or taken as less important.
Candor is Golden
People do care about outcomes, but they care more about the processes that produce those outcomes. People want to know where they stand and why. If there is a difficult message they need to hear, employees would prefer to know the truth rather than a watered down or clouded version of it.
Candor supersedes fluff in situations where truth is the medicine needed. Fear of telling a person they have failed, or are about to be fired, or they didn’t make the cut are realities in life. We all know this. Yet we do more harm to an individual by trying to soft pedal our way through a difficult conversation. When people are candid with us – and do it in a caring way – we are open to building trust with them – it’s as simple as that.
Turning Difficult Conversations into Trusting Relationships at Work
How should a leader address customers; shareholders; the press; employees? Are there different components of the message that should be shared with one group and not another? Who needs what type of information? Most of all, how can you set the context for difficult not to be so difficult. The best strategy is to be specific and clear about what is happening, rather than clouding the message with hyperbole.
Unmet Expectations: Most difficult messages come from a very common origin. Unmet expectations. I failed to deliver the results you expected. You failed to deliver the results I expected. It is difficult because it contains embarrassment and disappointment – two things human beings dislike the most. It is a social embarrassment and when this is the core of the message, people want to deflect the message, minimize it, blame others, avoid it – or use any other tactic they can think of to avoid the situation.
Every difficult message has a dynamic that is unique to the situation. If you don’t care about the relationship, then you can say anything you want. In this case you can “data dump” or get the situation off your chest and act mindlessly about how you say it. Sometimes this can be venting or letting it all out if the issue is about your relationships with an individual.
Caring: However, in most other cases, if your goal is to share something that is considered “difficult” and you want to sustain the relationship, you need to set the context for a sustained relationship up front so the person knows that this may be difficult for both of you… and that you care about them regardless of how difficult the message will be.
Candor: In addition, you want to be explicit and honest about what you are sharing. Candor communicates respect, and that is what people want most. Not candor that looks like blame, or anger, but candor that looks like the real truth.
Example: Failure to Deliver Results on Your End
For example, your company failed to make its numbers this quarter and it’s because of a delay in the launch of a product. There will be an impact on stock price, or deliveries, on employee bonuses - so the impact is across the board with employees, shareholders, press and even customers. Identify where the impacts lie, take responsibility for the event, ask people to accept your apology, explain your new strategy for making it better, and ask for their ongoing support or help in any way that is needed.
Understand How to Address Fears, Concerns, and Worries:
Triggering: ‘Feared Implications’
Very often just the thought of having a difficult conversation causes anxiety and fear. Our minds quickly create a movie of what might happen, and our minds are quick to imagine the worst. I call this ‘feared implications.’ Feared implications are the worst-case scenarios, and when our minds imagine the worst, the neurochemistry of fear takes over. The clinical name for this is Amygdala Hijack, named after the part of the brain, which is the seat of fear.
Do have the conversation in person whenever you can. When you talk with someone face-to-face, it primes the way for an honest and caring exchange and it does make a difference. People experience a great level of trust and openness when they see someone face-to-face and see the look in their eyes of caring and concern for their wellbeing.
Refocusing & Redirecting:
Do focus on outcomes and especially those that may be good or better for the person down the road. A person receiving bad news will be focusing on the loss and you want them to focus on how to use this situation to grow and to gain something better than what they had before. Redirect and refocus them on how to use this situation as an opportunity for change and growth.
Do focus on development and growth not punishment and blame. Most people feel shame and embarrassment when something goes wrong. When you reframe a discussion from ‘criticism’ to ‘development’ it shifts the person from thinking, “I was bad” to “Here are new ways to be successful.” This creates a new energetic shift in their brain from the fear state to being open to learn something new. The Heart-Prefrontal Cortex will start working together and become in sync to create a healthy state of mind – open to learn.
Fear closes down conversations. When the boss is afraid to talk, it amplifies the fear and feared implications. Instead, be open to discussing the impact and implications of the news. People will always say after the fact, that when a leader was open to discussion, it makes them feel that the difficult news was palatable. If the process of exchange is fair and open, with candor, respect and caring, then they can accept the news. Also, if there is dialogue they may come up with other ways of handling the situation that had not been revealed before.
Judith E. Glaser is CEO of Benchmark Communications, Chairman of the Creating WE Institute, Organizational Anthropologist, and consultant to Fortune 500 Companies and author of four best- selling business books, including Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results (Bibliomotion). Visit www.conversationalintelligence.com or call 212-307-4386.