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6 best practices when you need to have a hard conversation

Leadership and Hard Conversations

We fired one of our senior leaders this week.  It wasn’t an abrupt thing.  It wasn’t a capricious thing.  I will admit it was a difficult thing.  But most importantly, at the end of the day, it was the right thing.  And it came after a series of hard conversations.

Leader: hard conversations are not bad conversations, they are just hard conversations

Leader, how do you do with hard conversations?  Early in my career, I avoided hard conversations.  They were painful.  I did them poorly.  At times, things seemed to get worse instead of better afterwards. They got angry. I felt guilty.

But at some point I realized that avoiding hard conversations usually meant we were doomed to stay in bad places – we couldn’t get better until we addressed the bad things that were keeping us down.

“Avoiding hard conversations is allowing short-term discomfort to outweigh long-term dysfunction.”

Our decision this week was at least six months in the making.  It was built upon a series of hard conversations with this manager about missed performance criteria, bad management practices and inconsistent dealings with team members.

Here are six best practices to keep in mind the next time you need to have a hard conversation.

1. Rehearse ahead of time

Nothing beats preparation.  Know your talking points.  Be clear about what you aren’t going to say as well as what you are going to say.  Think through your word choice.  Even run your remarks by a colleague (or spouse) if appropriate.

2. Anticipate their worst possible response and plan for it

When we made the decision to let this manager go, part of what we talked about was contingency plans if he stormed out of the building or had an overly-emotional response.   Fortunately, while it was the final of a series of hard conversations, he handled it maturely and professionally, and our contingency plans didn’t need to be executed.  But they were in place just in case.

3. Don’t allow their emotions to get you off message

Many years ago, a salesperson who worked for me played me like a fiddle, using tears and/or anger to get her way.  It took me a while, but I slowly learned to recognize that just because she was hurt, that didn’t automatically mean she was right.  In fact, every time I gave in because of her anger, I was simply reinforcing an unhealthy dynamic. I had to learn to “stay the course” even when things got uncomfortable. It’s a lesson that has served me well ever since.

Leader: recognize that if you are having a hard conversation, there is a high degree of probability that tempers will flare.  Don’t let that rattle you.  Their anger shouldn’t change your message.

4. Consider using a team approach

When warranted, you may decide to have a witness available.  Two heads are always better than one.  You just need to use judgement here: only elevate the conversation to more than a one-on-one if you are concerned misunderstandings and accusations may come back to you.

5. Less is usually better than more

“Silence is golden” is a wonderful thing to keep in mind when you have hard conversations: make your point, be very clear, but don’t over-talk. Most importantly, don’t talk so much that the point of your conversation is lost in vague generalities.

6. Give them time for acceptance

Hard conversations are hard.  Bitter medicine.  A tough pill to swallow.  Therefore, don’t expect that everything will be fully patched up by the end of the conversation.  Give them time to process what you shared with them.  If appropriate, schedule a follow-on meeting at a future time to revisit the situation.

One final point:

If something isn’t difficult, it probably doesn’t need the touch of a leader.  It is in the difficult things that true leadership emerges.  What that means for you and me, fellow leader, is that as we go through our leadership lives, we will have scores of hard conversations.  Learn to handle them well.  They are good for you, good for your enterprise, and even, hopefully, good for them.