Author’s note: this is part of a long blog series on our ability to communicate effectively and efficiently. Feel free to look back on previous blogs and explore previous material on communicating and how you can communicate better.
Part 9 – Words to Use in Uncomfortable Conversations
My experience in having successful, albeit difficult, conversations relies on getting off on the right foot. And to get off on the right foot, I meticulously plan every move right up to the moment you start talking.
My first advice is about how to ask an employee to meet you for a difficult conversation.
Early in my leadership days, I’d walk down the hall, poke my head into the employees cubical, and ask rhetorically if they had time to come to my office to visit. Invariably someone would start the “dead man walking” chant which is not a great beginning to any conversation.
Out of respect and confidence, I now have taken to stalking my employees. Well, not really stalking them, but I try to strategically plan where I can catch them in private— the breakroom, parking lot, hallway— and quietly ask if they can come to my office at a specific time. Or even better, we meet at an unused office out of sight of the receptionist and administrative staff.
Secondly, I plan my opening line. I’m not skilled at pleasantries and mindless chatter. I’m a straight-to-the-point kind of guy.
In planning this opening line, I picture myself receiving it and seeing how I would take it. Lines like, “I know you don’t understand,” and “you screwed up yesterday,” really do not work well with me, so I assume they will not be a good place to start with an employee.
In planning this line, there are definitely words to stay away from. The word you is accusatory so it needs to be avoided. Using the personal pronoun, I, on the other hand, feels inclusive. The word but is argumentative and should be replaced with and.
With this in mind, my opening line is a clear statement on why we are meeting. If you cannot verbalize why you are meeting, then do not meet. And if you can verbalize it, you can modify that same statement to be positive and minimally threatening (just meeting is threatening enough).
“I have a concern about your actions in our meeting yesterday and I feel it is important we immediately clear the air.”
“I am increasingly more disappointed in the performance of your staff and we need to discuss that performance to avoid any misunderstandings.”
“Although we want to be an accommodating place to work, we have policies for a reason and it appears our understanding of these policies do not match.”
My goal is to be clear, non-personal, limited threatening, and well-intentioned.
Thirdly is how to follow the opening statement. My best success is to follow with a question using my best body language and tone of voice.
“What do you think?” “Do you understand why we need to have this conversation?” “What are your feelings on this?” I’m looking for dialogue to support or refute the research I have already done.
What you are looking for is the specific points of disagreement and the points that are moot. Rephrase these points and ask follow-up questions to make sure you understand what the employee is saying and to give the employee time to be confident in their position.
Give the employee some space to change their story as they realize any untenable position they have put themselves in. You have not given them time to craft an excuse so they are trying to do it on the fly. Eventually the truth will come out.
Don’t hold this against them, it’s human nature. Luke 8:17 says.
“For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.”
Finally, say thank you. You’re the boss and it takes courage to be met face-to-face with a problem of the employee’s making. I’ve had employees, who I’ve played softball with for years, crumble when I’ve had to question something they have done.
In my mind, all they need to do was own the mistake and let me know it won’t happen again. In their mind, they become a third grader called to the principal’s office.
This is a perfect time for some compassion.