The answers will come through the conversation, not before the conversation.
Not knowing how to start a difficult conversation is one of the most common reasons for avoiding a conversation. Another reason for avoiding is simply because the difficult conversation might feel bad.
You avoid initiating the conversation because you don’t want to hurt their feelings, but the truth is, you don’t like how you feel when their feelings are hurt. You appease them because you don’t want to make them defensive, but the truth is you don’t like how you feel when they get defensive.
In the end, it’s always about your own feelings. You don’t like your own sarcastic thoughts. You don’t like how you feel when someone resists your leadership. You worry that you might blow up. You don’t trust yourself to stay calm. You’re afraid you might take the bait and get distracted and end up in a completely different conversation than what you intended. It’s not at all about them. It’s all about you and what you don’t want to feel, and that’s how mismanagement begins.
Skill 1: Set the Intention
The very first skill before you ever utter a word in a live meeting is to craft a clear intention. The intention you craft in your office is the same intention you’ll use in your in-person meeting. The reason to set your intention prior to the meeting is so that you don’t fall onto an emotional land mine.
There’s a land mine every leader must be aware of when setting an intention: emotions. You must clear your own emotional energy before actually speaking about your intention. If you’re still holding a grudge, you won’t be able to set a proper intention, and you put emotional safety at risk. This is part of emotional integrity and is an inner game you need to win.
Skill 2: State the Observed Behavior
This one skill will change the way you lead. Instead of making value judgments and assumptions, you use observed behavior to address dysfunctional behaviors and performance. Your objective is to understand the difference between the story you’re telling yourself and the actual observable behavior.
Perception, assumption, generalization Observed behavior
You have a bad attitude. You have missed three deadlines this month.
She is rude and obnoxious. She interrupts at meetings.
He isn’t engaged. He kept looking at his cell phone during our conversation.
They don’t care. When I asked if they would like to participate, they said, “I guess.”
Skill 3: Speak to the Vision
Most of the time we focus on the shark instead of on the island, the obstacle instead of the goal. When we speak to the vision (the intended outcome), we focus more on what we want and less on what we don’t want.
Since most of us alternately speak in terms of what we don’t want and what we do want, here’s a way to balance the two. Anytime you hear yourself saying, “I don’t want . . . ,” finish your sentence, and then circle back and say, “What I do want . . .” This clarifies your end result and is more direct and to the point.
Skill 4: Make a Business Case
it’s only because it irritates you, then it’s not a good enough reason to spend energy on a conversation.
The reason to address an issue is because the behavior or the performance affects the business. This is the piece so often missing when it comes to addressing performance or behavior; we haven’t established the impact of the problem on the business; therefore, employees just think you’re nitpicking.
Skill 5: Get Curious
Curiosity is a fun skill to cultivate, and it changes the conversation. The first part of the conversation sounds like this: “My intention for this conversation is to talk about getting your documentation up to date. I’ve noticed that for the last three weeks there’s been no documentation. The story I’m telling myself is that you no longer think it’s important, but this puts us at risk for making costly mistakes in customer service.” Next, ask a focused question related to the issue at hand.
You’ll need to listen objectively when you get to this part of the conversation. You can’t allow yourself to get drawn into excuses, blame, or distractions. You’ll have to think like a consultant, be objective, avoid distractions, and get to the root of the problem.
Skill 6: Think like a Consultant
Your employee gets to talk now. They will tell you stories. They will share emotions. They may cry or get angry. Your goal is to listen for clues. There’s a reason for the performance problem, and there’s a reason for bad behavior. You aren’t assuming or judging, just listening to uncover the root problem.
When you listen to your employee explaining why things aren’t going well, listen for these five categories of clarity, skill, priority, resources, and willingness. Stop taking things personally and instead see yourself more as an investigative reporter trying to find the key that unlocks the mystery. You can fix almost any other problem with skills training, objectives clarification, prioritization, better communication, and the right resources. What you can’t overcome is a resistant employee who fails to take responsibility, has a fixed mindset, and is unwilling to learn.
Skill 7: Radical Listening
Radical listening is about the ability to listen even when it’s extremely difficult, when every bone in your body wants to explain, lecture, defend, or make wrong. This takes a lot of self-discipline and courage. You’ll need to put the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth to listen better. Stop interrupting, tempting as it may be.
Listen for subtle clues of resistance or lack of confidence. For example, when you’re coaching an employee to do something bold and they say, “I’ll try . . . ,” don’t say, “Great!” and think it’s done. There’s a subtle clue in “I’ll try,” which means they aren’t confident, or they aren’t committed. This can trigger you if you aren’t careful. Don’t use the tired old saying “There is no such thing as try!” Instead, you say something like, “It sounds like you aren’t confident you can achieve this goal?” Either they’ll consider their language or it will open a dialogue about their perceived barriers, to which you can then offer mentoring, advice, or coaching. See the difference curiosity makes in the quality of the conversation? You go from quoting Yoda to understanding what’s behind someone’s language. If you keep hearing issues of being stuck, attached, negative, or distracted (SAND), then you can test for resistance using the magic phrase. The important piece up to this point is that you manage your own resistance.
Skill 8: The Magic Phrase
Remember the magic phrase “Would you be willing . . . ?” Your goal isn’t to win an argument or play “gotcha.” Please don’t assume they aren’t willing. You are only testing for willingness here.
When someone resists your efforts, the first impulse is to argue or persuade. Sometimes you think you’re helping, but usually you’re causing more resistance by arguing. There’s a time to be a cheerleader and a time to test for resistance. With this method, you aren’t offering any counterresistance. There’s absolutely no push-pull to your agenda. Objections die on agreement. If you can meet people where they are and agree with their view of the world, you can use the magic phrase to uncover the perceived barriers.
Skill 9: Getting Agreement and Accountability
Everyone felt good after the drama of a difficult conversation, and there’s a glow you feel after resolving an intense argument. Don’t let this happen. The next step is to get their agreement to meet again in two weeks to check on progress. Explain how you’ll measure progress and what you expect to happen in two weeks. Get their agreement that you’ll coach them if you see anything not measuring up. Then promptly put your accountability conversation on the calendar and send an invite. In two weeks, you’ll review their progress and uncover possibly more barriers. You’ll test for additional levels of resistance, and you’ll encourage them for the gains they’ve made. Set another accountability meeting; this time choose two weeks, three weeks, or a month, depending on the complexity of the situation and their progress.
A gentle reminder: Be kind to yourself. Skill building takes willingness, practice, and courage. Everyone knows the answer in a workshop or after reading a book. Real skills development doesn’t happen from reading a book or attending a workshop. It comes from real-life practice.