Difficult Conversations

During my summer internship (a long time ago!), I was asked by the head of HR of the company to join her for an interview she was conducting. I sat down with her and observed her conduct the interview, learning my first lessons in Behavioural interviewing. At the end of the interview after the candidate had walked out of the room, she asked me what my assessment of the candidate was. I don’t remember the reasons, but I remember telling her that “I wouldn’t hire him.” She agreed with my assessment, and then put me on the spot by saying, “Go and tell him he is not through.” I was startled. I had never done such a thing before. I guess I looked at her (with my mouth open) for a second too long, because she went to explain, “As a part of our job in HR, we are sometimes the bearer of bad news. You should know how to communicate harsh messages and have difficult conversations.” I went on to inform the candidate that he wasn’t selected and it wasn’t easy. The look of dejection on his face only made it more difficult. Between then and now I have had my share of difficult conversations and I can now say with a fair amount of certainty that:

  1. Difficult conversations are…well…difficult.
  2. It’s not just as HR professionals, but as peers and more often as team leads and Managers, we need to have difficult conversations.

I am sharing here three points that help me be better prepared for a difficult conversation.

Prepare a script: Just key words will do, but do list down the points in a notepad (I won’t suggest using a laptop, as that can distract you from the conversation). Think through all the points –

  • How you will initiate the conversation (the objective, the issue)
  • Key points you want to cover
  • Impact of the action / inaction
  • Desired outcome of the meeting.

There is a chance that the conversation will not follow the path that you have planned for, but you will be more in control of the conversation if you are prepared.

“But what about those spontaneous difficult conversations?”, you may ask. My suggestion – if you know the topic is sensitive / difficult, ask the person to block separate time for the discussion rather than just let it happen near the coffee machine or in front of other colleagues.

Facts: Get your facts in place. Separate out the assumptions and inferences. Use these facts in the conversation, rather than being vague. “You are always coming late,” can be replaced by “I have noticed that you came in 30 minutes late on 3 days this week.” Facts are easier to agree (or disagree) to and helps move the conversation ahead.

Emotions: The most dicey one. Be prepared to handle not just the facts that the other person will put forward in the discussion, but also their emotions. They may feel threatened and so may operate from a defensive position. Be aware and address their emotions (“I understand you feel frustrated and helpless because of the way the client treats you.”)

In addition, it’s not just about their emotions, it is as much about yours. During an emotional outburst, it is possible for us to get emotionally hijacked as well. Responding to anger with anger is something some of us feel justified doing. What that does to the discussion is something we have all possibly experienced in some personal confrontation, if not professional.

In summary, a little preparation can go a long way in making the difficult conversation a little less difficult.

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