Handling Difficult Conversations
Giving feedback to your employees, particularly when their performance falls short of expectations, is one of the most critical roles you play as a leader. The objective of the “Handling Difficult Conversations” is to not only identify issues and a plan for resolution, but to effectively frame discussions to achieve your desired results. While there are many approaches to conflict/problem resolutions, your method and the one we teach during our training sessions should be a process that is widely used and effective.
The context of your conversation and approach should include a road map in five key areas:
1. Using a process approach to identify the problem clearly and accurately.
2. Reviewing tools to gather data, which helps you to understand the current context of the problem (what is) and research options for moving forward (what could be or should be).
3. Developing and implementing a plan that is data-driven and based on facts, realistic and feasible evidence, clear and concise direction, criterion, and consensus driven, and wellcommunicated.
4. Using sound metrics to monitor and evaluate the plan. Resolving issues using an “if, then” approach.
5. Effectively framing the issue to overcome barriers and gain the employee’s commitment.
In all your conversations, the communication skills you will need to use will depend on the type of conversation you will be having. For example:
1. Is the person struggling with job performance?
2. Are there significant changes in the organization that may affect them?
3. Is it an annual employee review and or career development discussion?
4. Are they concerned about their role and responsibility?
5. First time back in the office post Covid
Here are some of the skills you will need to use and perfect:
What a supervisor or manager says, particularly in the first minute of a conversation has an enormous effect on a discussion. It can set the tone and determine whether you establish a
bond with the other person. It is important to consider what you say and how you say it. This will ensure that each of your statements or questions creates a positive climate so you and the other person can connect.
Connecting skills include:
• Using eye contact
• Adapting to the speaking patterns, gestures, and body posture of the other person
• Building rapport, as appropriate, by smiling, complimenting, using small talk, and establishing areas of mutual interest
The second communication skill set that a leader needs to master is encouraging. Encouraging skills, when used appropriately, keep the other person participating in the conversation. Like connecting skills, this set of skills is a combination of verbal and nonverbal tactics.
Encouraging skills include:
• Reinforcing what has been said by giving short verbal and nonverbal signals to the other person
• Empathizing by showing you understand how the other person feels
• Acknowledging the information by showing the other person you received the information
Listening is the ability to hear and remember facts and feelings. The more information a leader receives, the better he or she can instruct employees, uncover problems earlier, find effective solutions to problems, plan, and communicate with management.
Guidelines for listening:
1. Show interest in the employee’s ideas and encourage him or her to continue talking.
• You could miss valuable input if the employee stops talking because he or she thinks you are not listening.
• Your interest demonstrates sincerity, not necessarily agreement with the employee.
• The employee will handle your disagreement more easily if he or she feels listened to.
2. Communicate with the employee through questions, comments, and nonverbal actions such as:
• Using eye contact to show you are interested in what the employee has to say.
• Using facial expressions to establish an encouraging atmosphere so the employee will talk.
• Using appropriate body language to indicate your interest in what’s being said.
• Using interested gestures to show you’re concentrating on what’s being said.
The employee can become confused if you say, “Please, go on, I’m interested,” as you shuffle papers, a nonverbal message that communicates, “Please get this over with. I’ve more important things to do.” The employee often assumes the worst and decides you don’t want to hear anymore. Do not express your own opinions while you are listening. The purpose of listening is to collect information and to increase your understanding of the subject. If you are expressing your opinion, you are not learning anything from the employee. When you talk during this process, it should be only to further encourage and focus the employee to keep the conversation on track.
There are two basic types of questions – closed-ended and open-ended questions. Closed questions can be answered with a few words and invite a response of yes or no. Closedended questions are used to gather baseline data, check understanding, and direct a conversation. They often begin with do, does, can, will, could or how many.
• “Do you understand what needs to be done?”
• “Has this kind of thing happened before?”
• “Can we just ship it tomorrow?”
Open-ended questions require employees to formulate a lengthier response.
• “What are your career plans?”
• “How satisfied are you with our company as an employer?”
• “In what ways will your vacation effect next week’s schedule?”
You should use mostly open-ended questions in work discussions, so your employee will do most of the talking.
Note: Open-ended questions are not always preferable to closed-ended questions. For example, when you are confirming (checking for the employee’s agreement) it might be useful to ask, “You said this has never happened before. Is that correct?”
You must try to get a high return from your questions, because you have only a limited amount of time to ask them. Some open-ended questions merely elicit information that could be found
• Asking ordinary open-ended questions is like asking the employee to open a file folder and read the contents to you.
High-gain questions, in contrast, require employees to become engaged mentally because they ask for high-value information that cannot be found in files. Employees can’t “coast” while answering these questions. High-gain questions elicit the type of information you might hear if you were to attend a problem-solving session.
• Asking high-gain questions is like asking an employee to create new files, rearrange existing information, or search for new meaning.
High-gain questions require employees to think before responding. As part of your planning for a work discussion, you should prepare some high-gain questions to use with your employee.
While asking high-gain questions, be sure to encourage the employee. High-gain questions are tough to answer. If you do not encourage while asking them, the employee may feel interrogated. By encouraging, you can take the edge off your high-gain questions and make the discussion more conversational.
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