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How To Have Difficult Conversations

Preparing for that 'chat'

May 05, 2020 | 4 min. read

Nobody likes delivering bad news, be it turning down a promotion, a disciplinary meeting or maybe even firing someone. But ‘difficult’ doesn’t need to mean ‘impossible’  there are a few ways that you can make the situation less traumatic for all concerned.

1. Get your ducks in a row
It’s important to have a roadmap for the conversation – plan it out well before it takes place – you should already have a good idea about what you’re going to say, but it’s a very good idea to anticipate the reaction of the other party to each part. Try and work out what questions they’ll have, or how they might challenge what you’re saying, and have your responses ready. Write them down and take them with you.

2. Choose your venue wisely
A serious conversation requires a face-to-face meeting. Try and find an office or a meeting room that gives you a degree of privacy. If the matter is urgent, or the only available room is the one with the PS4 and the neon ping-pong table, you might want to find an offsite location like a quiet coffee shop.

3. Ditch the sandwich
A quick internet search on the topic of delivering bad news throws up one popular technique –the Bad News Sandwich. Simply put, the idea is that you sugar coat the bad news by bookending it with supportive, positive statements or compliments. But while this might seem to make things easier, it actually sends out a mixed signal and undermines the message. You can’t put a positive spin on everything. Be respectful and clear.

4. Clarity is king
Another good reason to bin the Sandwich is because you should cut to the chase. The other person will probably be nervous and it’s important not to prolong the inevitable. Be specific and clear about why the conversation is taking place and have concrete examples to back up your reasons. The conversation will be easier if you remove any room for doubts. Just like anticipating the reaction, you should also prepare by writing everything down before the meeting.

5. Give them time to process…
The fact that you’re having this conversation means that you’re communicating something that’s serious and/or unpleasant. It might be something that the other person genuinely didn’t see coming, but even if they did, it still might not go down well. So give them a moment to digest what you’ve said.

6. …but not too long
They may have questions or points to make in mitigation, so factor that in – but make it clear that the meeting has a hard stop when time’s up. This isn’t an agenda-based meeting with a set of items to cover – the sole purpose is to deliver a single, clear message effectively.

7. Look to the future
You’ve now covered the reasons for having the meeting – that’s the past. The next step is to outline what’s going to happen next. If it’s a dismissal, then you’d be discussing things like notice periods and severance pay. If it’s about performance, you’ll be giving a series of improvements that you want to see happen along with a timescale. Again, it’s vitally important to be clear on what’s going to happen or what needs to change.

The approach is very similar if it’s a case of rejecting someone’s application for promotion or pay rise – outline the reasons and whatever steps they can take to be more successful next time around.

8. Get buy-in
This sounds tricky, but it’s an important part of ensuring that the message has been understood and will be acted upon. Depending on what the meeting is about, you could ask them what they think should happen next. In the case of a dismissal, it’ll be the other way around – you’ll be dictating the next steps.

Whatever the situation, it’s good practice to let them end with a ‘yes’, preferably more than one. It confirms that they’ve understood everything that’s been discussed and that everything is clear.

9. Schedule some ‘me’ time
Don’t forget, this is hard on you too. So even if it’s just a few minutes, allow yourself a bit of time to recover. These type of meetings drain a lot of energy so be sure you don’t have a 2-hour status update planned shortly after. You could schedule the meeting just before lunch or at the end of the day – that gives you time to take a break and grab a bite to eat, or call it a day and go home.

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