If you're a manager, it's likely that you've been in a situation before where there's a conversation that needs to happen - or news to be delivered - and the time never seems to be right. In the meantime the issue is mounting, and it's clear procrastination is not going to make it go away. The hardest part is making the decision to go through with a tough conversation, and thankfully there are some tricks to getting through it and maintaining integrity - both yours and your employee's - in the process.
Whether you're delivering bad news about an appeal for a salary increase, giving less-than-stellar feedback, or laying off or terminating an employee, there are a few cornerstones of effective communication that you need to bear in mind. Emotions are likely to run hot for both you and the recipient of the news, and there are proven ways to stick with your message, foster a sense of calm, keep the tone neutral, and offer comforting clarity about what will come next. Here are our tips on how to pull off a difficult conversation you're dreading.
1. Be clear
When conveying discouraging news, it's crucial to be straightforward. If you circle around what you're getting at without ever really saying it directly, you'll add a layer of frustration on top of news that's already hard to take. In order to deliver your thoughts clearly, though, it's key to think them through ahead of time. Identify the problem or limitation; state what needs to change; then put in place specific guidelines around how to get there. Your employee should leave the meeting knowing exactly what needs to happen next.
2. Remind yourself in advance that silence is okay
The flip side of prepping in advance for what you want to say is planning ahead for the awkward silences that are bound to surface. The quickest way to have a conversation take a nosedive is rushing to fill that empty space with words. Depending on how comfortable or uncomfortable you are with silence, this part may be easy or excruciating. But it's critical to take a deep breath during those pregnant pauses. Take a minute to let the information you're conveying sink in, then move forward to next steps. Actionable items you put out there might feel like life rafts for your employee...or they'll trigger lashing out with accusations or stonewalling. If the employee takes the latter approach, it's best to address complaints calmly and directly.
3. Set emotions aside
You will feel emotion - that's natural. But whether you feel sad, angry, betrayed or frustrated, it's important to keep your feelings in check. That said, you don't want to come across as an automaton. To strike the right balance between sappy and stoic, call upon your innate sense of empathy without letting it derail the message you set out to convey. Even if your employee lashes out in the moment, you as manager need to conduct yourself in a way that is dignified. Remember, you had time to prepare - he or she probably didn't. If you take the high road with every interaction, your employee is more likely to respond positively even if it takes some time to get there.
[Related: Top 5 Toughest HR Conversations]
4. Stick to what's directly relevant
If it's come to this, you may have a laundry list of grievances. But rather than air every single one, plan ahead to stick to the specific points that relate to the feedback or news you're sharing. If you start tossing everything into the washer at once, your message gets diluted and ideas bleed into one another - just like poorly sorted dirty linens. Best to tackle one load at a time.
As much as we'd all love for business interactions to be nothing but constructive positivity and unfettered progress, obstacles will present themselves. As a manager, it's important to learn to navigate these inevitable challenges. The key is addressing them sooner than later, then sticking to our tips for carrying these conversations off as gracefully and as constructively as possible.
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