No matter which side of the desk you sit on, you are gonna have to engage in tough conversations from time to time. A tough conversation is one where one party in the conversation is the recipient of uncomfortable information.
It may be a performance conversation. It could be something related to interpersonal relationships in the workplace.
These can be awkward for all involved, but it doesn’t have to be, not if you follow a few rules of engagement.
There is a right way to do this, with a witness, an ounce of respect, your ears wide-open and solid set of next steps. But first, you’ve got to get the cards on the table…
Call It What It Is
Whether you throw the first stone or the other person does, someone has to call it. We’re having a tough conversation.
If the one who started the chit-chat can’t say it, let the pressure out for both of you by asking: Are we having a tough conversation?
Just doing this much can make the discomfort dissipate enough to continue without squirming. It also puts a card in your hand: courage.
Don’t Talk Alone
Once you’ve identified you are having a tough conversation, if you notice there is nobody in the room but you and the other person, stop.
Don’t ever have a difficult conversation without a witness. Most often these take place behind closed doors, so arrange a witness in advance. That person is not there to contribute, necessarily, but to be a third set of eyes.
It should not be a peer of the person on the receiving end unless the receiver is you and you insist on you peer being present.
If the one conducting the conversation does not have someone, request someone be present. It could be a human resources representative who is on a speakerphone.
As the one who conducts tough conversations, the more you can involve another person in everyday conversations, the less ominous “bringing someone in” will seem when the conversation gets tough.
Don’t Forget: People Have Feelings
This goes both ways. If you are delivering the bad news, it’s great that you’re a straight shooter, but the receiver of your bullets has feelings.
Even if you’ve convinced yourself that it’s that person’s fault you’re in the hot seat, you have to put on kid gloves.
That means you may speak directly so long as you ask permission first. Most people will appreciate the perceived control this affords them like they asked for it.
If you are on the receiving end of this chit-chat, remember the person delivering it may have a thicker skin that you, but that person is still a human being.
Once you start disrespecting that person’s dignity, same as if they did it to you, the conversation may spin out of control.
There is no more important time than right now to repeat what you’ve understood from the speaker.
If you don’t know what that means, when the other person finishes speaking, start with the phrase, “What I hear you saying is…” Then, repeat your understanding of what she said.
This gives the speaker the chance to revise.
You will not be able to take any amicable actions until you both have a clear understanding of what was communicated. You both need to feel heard and understood.
Arrive at Next Steps
At some point, the conversation will apex, likely when you both have come to an understanding of each other’s position.
This doesn’t mean you will agree with the other’s perspective. You can agree to disagree. You still have to identify next steps.
You may decide to come back to the conversation after you’ve had time to sit with it. Perhaps the one facilitating the convo needs to do more research, or the receiver needs to take some decisive actions.
Either way, next steps are concrete and time-bound. If the chit-chat is a termination, then you need to arrive at an understanding of the logistics of the term.
If you do this right, even if the other person stinks at communication, you’ll both walk out of this conversation in one piece.
Being a good listener, but also respecting people’s dignity is the secret sauce to turning the tide on this difficult part of the day.
These techniques could save your relationship or job. They will also save your reputation as being a fair and reasonable person.