Susan Scott, in her excellent book ‘Fierce Conversations’ identifies 5 common errors that managers can all too easily slip into when conducting a ‘difficult’ conversation. We have seen these same errors repeatedly when running training programmes where we use role plays to help managers practice their skills in managing difficult conversations. Perhaps, like us you will find it useful to read through them – and avoid making some of these errors when you next need to have challenging discussions when the stakes are high!
Error 1: “So, how is it going?”
An employee walks into the room and the first thing there manager says is, ‘So, how is it going?’ or perhaps, ‘How do you feel you are doing in the company?
You may well have heard this words in the past and recognise the sinking feeling that they create. Immediately they are likely to suspect that there could be a hidden agenda or trap here-some bad news which is on the way. Clearly they are not doing as well as they had thought?
This oblique way of starting the conversation is highly likely to get a guarded response rather than an honest conversation. Being clear, honest and direct is far more respectful and also likely to lead to an real discussion, ‘I asked you here today to talk about some concerns I have about your performance over the last month and to discuss with you how we can get things back on track.’
Error 2: The Oreo Cookie
You might also know this one as the ‘Feedback Sandwich’. Wherever this model was originally derived there seems to be a well known view that we need to start with some good news, then give the negatives/bad news and finish once again with a positive. Unfortunately it is well known by nearly everyone, so much so that at the first piece of praise there can be a resulting lurch of the heart as they prepare themselves for the for the bad news that is to follow.
Positive feedback and praise are vitally important but if you are to avoid this type of reaction keep praise as a separate discussion focussed on clear, specific behaviour and results – don’t praise as a lead into a difficult conversation.
Error 3: Too Many Pillows
It is human nature to try to spare people from pain and hurt-to line their road with pillows to soften their fall. The result can be that we cushion our message to spare the other person’s feelings to such an extent that the real conversation never really takes place. The message is so mild, indirect and subtle that the other person walks away thinking that this has just been a casual chat-definitely not something to be concerned about or one that requires their attention – and so after all your time and efforts trying to tackle the issue nothing will change until the next chat….
Of course sometimes we do this to spare the other person’s feeling-and sometimes it is to spare our own. We may put off having the conversation for a whole host of reason’s until the time is just right – or sometimes the conversation never happens at all.
Difficult conversations don’t get any easier for delaying them, the earlier you initiate the conversation the sooner you can move onto action and resolution.
Error 4: Writing the Script
Difficult conversations cannot be scripted in advance-we cannot know what is in another person’s mind or how they will respond/react. We can only prepare a script if we are going to hold a monologue rather than a true conversation.
If we spend time scripting the meeting there is a real danger that we will assume, and close down options and possibilities, going in with pre-conceived issues and solutions. If we go in too well prepared we might not even be open to hearing anything different – hearing and seeing only what we expect.
Preparation is important-especially preparing your opening statement at the start of the conversation but we also need to allow ourselves to be open to the other person’s views, reactions and possibilities so that you can deal with them as they arise.
Error 5: Machine Gun Nelly
Sadly, we are probably all familiar with the person who goes in with the heavy artillery-all guns blazing. The mere fear of the envisaged confrontation can get them so fired up with adrenalin that they move straight into the offensive, delivering a volley of accusation and blame. As they may also have already envisaged an emotional response or defensive reaction they avoid it by going straight into attack and then cuts and runs – without waiting to deal with any collateral damage.
The ensuing damage can of course be considerable, both to the employee but also to the reputation of the manager who can all too easily be labelled as a bully.
Perhaps you have fallen into these traps yourself in the past-or know others who have. So whether you need to coach others – or just need to prepare yourself ready to have a difficult conversation we hope this helps you to navigate some of the pitfalls and increase your chances of a real, effective dialogue.
Based on Susan Scott’s book: Fierce Conversations