How to have tough conversations?

It’s never comfortable to be on either side of a difficult conversation. However, being able to have a tough talk or deliver unwelcome news – telling someone they’re not getting that raise, intervening when a direct report’s behavior is off base, reviewing the performance of a team member whose work is falling short – is a core skill that all IT leaders or managers must master.

When it’s time to address an issue with an employee, peer, or business partner, people tend to make one of two mistakes, a business leadership coach and author of “Conversations Worth Having.” They put it off, which often exacerbates the situation, or they shoot from the hip, which can lead to a less effective conversation, hurt feelings, or worse.

Never wing it

“Even if you are an experienced leader or manager, take the time to really prepare ahead for the conversation. “Think through what you are going to say and also prepare for what they might say and questions they may ask.”

Exercise empathy

“Being criticized raises our fear of rejection, not being good enough to belong. Receiving critical feedback can trigger our own fear of being rejected. “The more fear, the less access we have for connecting and working things out together.”

Before having the conversations, consider the other person’s side. What might be inhibiting their performance? What might help? “Find out if there are outside influences that are impacting someone’s performance and behavior.

Avoid the “feedback sandwich”

You know the formula where you give a compliment, provide constructive criticism, and then give another compliment?

It doesn’t work. “If every conversation starts that way, the individual will always think there is something negative approaching whenever you give them a compliment or positive reinforcement.

Replace “but” with “and”

Being thoughtful about language goes a long way toward having a constructive conversation. Instead of saying “You had great visual aids, but you could have given your audience more time for questions” try “You had great visual aids, and next time you might think about adding more time for audience question.”

“The word ‘but’ erases everything that comes before it and can put people on the defensive. “The tweak may seem small but the impact it will have on how the receiver interprets the feedback and how it makes them feel makes a powerful difference.”

Offer remedies – and hope

It’s important to give the other party a remediation plan. “Lay out a clearly defined path forward to address the feedback, including timing, milestones, and measures of success. “This is particularly important if it is in the context of someone not getting a promotion.”

Giving the other person hope – that a raise is still an option, that they can continue to progress in the function – is helpful. Never end the conversation on a negative note. But avoid giving false hope, Freedman says, as that “can damage both the employee and the leader’s reputation.”

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