One of the most important skills that a business leader can have is the ability to conduct tough conversations. The conversations can range from telling a client that a project has experienced delays to giving an employee a less-than-stellar performance review. When engaging in tough conversations, business leaders need to manage the exchange to keep their emotions from taking over while ensuring that they choose the most appropriate language to convey their message. With some preparation, business leaders can learn how to successfully handle these conversations. Following are some key tips to keep in mind for managing tough conversations:
1. Plan for the conversation, but remain flexible.
Before engaging in a difficult conversation, business leaders should jot down some notes about points that need to be addressed. However, it is important not to dwell so much on planning that the whole conversation becomes scripted. The other person is not likely to follow a script, which can mean that leaders may end up feeling like they are at a loss for what to say or—even worse—reply in a way that sounds artificial. Leaders need to maintain flexibility in order to ensure that the conversation moves in the direction that the other person wants, while also ensuring that it returns to the key points so that everything crucial is communicated.
2. Maintain a slow rhythm, and pause to listen.
While we do not always think about the impact of rhythm on the tone of a conversation, it can change the feel of an encounter. When business leaders simply slow down their cadence, they can really diffuse a situation. In addition, they should always pause before responding to others, which ensures that they have finished speaking and gives people time to formulate the ideal response. A pause will make the other person feel heard and respected, which can radically shift the overall mood of the conversation. Leaders may also want to employ active listening skills, such as paraphrasing, in order to make the other person feel heard.
3. Try to offer something to the other person.
Tough conversations do not always have to focus solely on the issue at hand. When business leaders think hard about what they can potentially offer to another person, the gesture shows a degree of empathy and helps to reframe the conversation to be more constructive. While it may not always be immediately apparent, leaders can virtually always offer viable alternatives to someone else. For example, if a company is letting an employee go after a number of years, a business leader can have a recommendation prepared that shows how much the organization has appreciated the person’s work. If leaders are speaking with a client about the delay of a project, they can offer some other options to make up for it.
4. Choose an appropriate setting for the conversation.
While business leaders will often simply call someone into their office when they want to have a tough conversation, there are other options that may be more comfortable for everyone. A better option may be to find neutral ground, such as a meeting room. Leaders should think about the setup of a space. Often, sitting adjacent to someone rather than across from them makes the conversation seem much less intimidating. Even a public setting such as a coffee shop can be better than a private office, although this is not always an appropriate choice for every type of conversation.
5. Try to understand the other person’s point of view.
Few things are more frustrating than feeling misunderstood. For that reason, a business leader should attempt to take the perspective of the other person before starting the conversation. Sometimes, leaders will not always understand the other person’s point of view and will need to ask them for help. Doing so shows that a leader really cares about the other person and their feelings. When listening to another person’s point of view, leaders should be careful with their choice of words and tone, as this can reveal some of the hidden meaning in the conversation. Ideally, leaders can find some common ground to build on moving forward.
6. Reflect on how the conversation went after it has ended.
Leaders should take a few minutes to think about how the conversation went once it ends and try to figure out what they can do better in the future. Whether it involves saying things in a different way or reacting more empathetically, there is usually some way in which leaders can improve. However, it is also important to recognize what went well. Understanding personal strengths can help to frame the conversation more effectively in the future. If leaders feel like they need to work on this area, they may want to observe how others handle tough situations, which could mean joining in on conversations in the office. In these situations, it is important to reflect after the conversations are over.