In this article we’re going to focus on the one-on-one critical conversations where you are required to deliver “bad” news, or resolve an uncomfortable work relationship. This could be in the form of delivering bad news about a project (e.g. the scope has changed, and a deadline is looming), an unfavorable work review, coaching for performance improvement or even firing someone. Mostly, these are meetings where a team member or peer is under-performing, being obstructive, or just doesn’t understand what is required of them.
Most of us would be tempted to put such meetings off or even delegate the task to someone else, hoping the situation will just resolve itself. However, if you aspire to be a great manager, this is something you must learn how to do without hesitation. Here are three tips to help make these meetings run smoothly for you with the best of outcomes.
3 Tips on How to Tackle Critical Conversations
1. Get to the point
Don’t beat around the bush. Usually we fear hurting the person’s feelings, or provoking an unwanted reaction, so the temptation is to talk around the message. However, they will most likely benefit from a frank and honest statement of the truth. Having said that, you do want to make sure you have some rapport first, so keep in mind the positive feelings you have about this person, mention something you appreciate about them, and remember and acknowledge their strengths before diving into the message you have to deliver.
You don’t want to be overly blunt or judgemental either, so keep your tone as empathetic and understanding as possible while keeping your message clear, and remember to acknowledge the effect this situation is having on you, or the team. “I have some bad news for you…” or “ there is something which has been bothering me..” or “can you help me with something I have been struggling with?” with a pause to give them a chance to prepare themselves, is most likely the only preamble you need.
Here is an article from Brigham Young University on some research they carried out which concluded that most people prefer directness and candour with little, if any, buffer.
2. Don’t over-explain
It makes sense to offer up explanations for the news you are delivering, or the situation you want to resolve. For example: “We are letting you go because…” or “The deal fell through because…”. However, a sentence or two to explain the situation is sufficient.
Try to be as succinct as possible, and leave pauses for a response. The temptation may be to elaborate too much, but this will only distract from the intended message. Be brief, honest and keep it simple. Make sure you check in with the person, and let them know you want to understand their perspective. Maybe there are circumstances which you are unaware of, so give them time and space to speak about the issue, and the effect it is having on them. Give them an opportunity to offer suggestions about how to resolve the situation, and contribute and even collaborate on a solution.
3. Prepare and practice what you are going to say
Think about how you want to be in this meeting, what approach you’d like to take, and the ideal outcome. If you have tried to communicate with this person before, and the situation hasn’t improved, there is no point in trying the same strategies all over again.
“The definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.”Albert Einstein
Rehearsing your initial statements is a great idea as it will help you get straight to the point and not over explain. Listening and responding with your outcome in mind can change your perspective, and help the meeting to go as you would like, for the good of all. Once you have delivered the bad news though, be ready to be flexible and adaptive to the other person’s cues.
It’s a good idea to try and anticipate what the recipient of the message might say after receiving the bad news and formulate some responses. We suggest you write these down before the meeting to help get clarity in your responses. However, also be open to the idea that you can’t prepare for every eventuality, in which case return to the first two points in the article.
Hopefully these three simple tips (getting to the point, not over-explaining, and practicing) will help you make delivery bad news easier, although it will never be easy. Peers and Players offers courses in Critical Conversations which allows participants to bring in real life situations that they can explore and practice using role-play with trained corporate actors.