Lightbulb Coaching

Turning a difficult conversation into a meaningful conversation

The blogs are written to be useful, I hope that in the coming series you will pick up learnings and useful tools in personal development. I have so much to talk about! The coming series will focus on building confidence, the lack of employability skills in schools, treating early careerists like the next CEO, taking charge of accidental managers, the list goes on. These are just some future blogs for you to look out for. The one constant topic that I work with clients on is having difficult conversations, a.k.a awkward conversations, performance conversations, developmental conversations……. conversations!

Call it whatever you like, it’s a conversation! But for some, certain conversations cause differing degrees of anxiety and for some, even a lack of sleep. I have witnessed a manager watching issues unfold through their fingers only to have one almighty problem in the future.
Common reasons for feeling anxious about the pending conversation are:

  • What if I stumble over the words and can’t get my point across?
  • They won’t let me get a word in and will argue with every point I make.
  • What if they cry?
  • What if they get angry?
  • What if they leave?
  • Nothing will change it’s a pointless exercise

Let me share an example.

Fay was highly technical, she was considered an expert within her area and had been in the organisation for 5 years. Her level of knowledge gave her team the edge and performance were high. She was asked to mentor an intern for 3 months but the feedback from the intern was damning. She didn’t spend any time with him, she gave him menial tasks and sent him to shadow other teams. When the intern spoke to the rest of the team about it, they advised not to complain as she was just really busy and would get mad and give him even more menial tasks to do.
It was a miserable 3 months for the intern and the rest of the team had started to feel like they were being treated in the same way. They didn’t report to her, yet she delegated tasks, was volatile in her moods and she talked down to them.

People in the team started to leave. They had spoken to Fay’s Manager about how she was behaving but no action was taken. Fay’s reputation for being an expert was being overshadowed by her reputation for being hot headed and difficult to work with.

When Fay’s Manager was asked why he hadn’t raised concerns with Fay he said that he didn’t know how she would react. He hadn’t been witness to some of the behaviours so what would he say? She was still getting the job done.

When probed further, Fay’s Manager admitted that he didn’t know how to deal with it. He had been promoted to Manager without training and wasn’t confident with the process. He didn’t want to go down an official HR route but didn’t know how to approach Fay. He didn’t want to be blamed for her leaving.

With some help, Fay and her Manger sat down to discuss what had been happening. Fay was feeling overwhelmed and hadn’t been coping well with her workload. As the department “expert” she was given more work to do and is expected to be able to manage. She didn’t like refusing the work so was working at home very late and was tired and grumpy most days. Fay’s Manager wasn’t aware of the strain Fay was feeling.

Fay wasn’t fully aware of how her behaviour was affecting the others. The Intern had made a few mistakes early on and Fay didn’t trust him to take on more responsibility and didn’t have the time to spend on his development, so she gave him easier tasks to do.

Had Fay’s Manager had a conversation with Fay early he would have been able to alert Fay to her behaviour and how it was affecting others.
She would have had an opportunity to talk about her workload and how she was feeling.

It is very common for individuals to be promoted without making sure their level of competence is right for the role. As humans, we sometimes don’t like to admit what we are lacking in terms of skills and abilities.

We need to act fast. Having regular one-to-ones with your staff builds rapport, trust and provides a forum for honest conversations.
It is easy for bad behaviour to become the norm and over time will form part of the culture. Calling out these behaviours early sends a positive message, but you need to have a suitable working environment, a place of work where no-one is exempt from having their bad behaviours called out. I will be talking about culture and behaviours in the series.

In my experience, preparation is key for having meaningful conversations. Here are some ideas to take the difficult out of your difficult conversation:

  • Have your facts in order. Whether you are asking for a pay rise of giving constructive feedback to the scariest member of your team, know what your message is.
  • Evidence is key. Have back-up for the positive and constructive points you want to make. The first thing you will hear in retort to your first statement is “give me an example”
  • Prepare your opening statement, make it 30 seconds max and practice saying out loud. Once you’ve said it, your brain and mouth will remember the words, you are less likely to stumble over your words. This will give you confidence to get your words out.
  • State what needs to change or be done and by when.
  • Take some of the responsibility, be part of the solution. Ask what you can do to help the individual succeed.
  • Ask questions, put yourself in the other persons shoes.
  • Let the person react with whichever emotion comes up for them. You should always remove yourself from danger but in my experience, it is never as bad as you have imagined it.
  • Give yourself plenty of time, don’t book a room for 15 minutes, always over estimate the time it will take so you both have freedom to talk without being interrupted too early.
  • Consider the space, don’t have a meaningful conversation in the kitchen or open plan office, consider the content might be confidential.
  • Return to the conversation if required, don’t leave it too long.

Seeing a difficult conversation as a meaningful conversation is the first positive step to turning a problem into a solution. We can all be too busy to see what is going on around us but if we lift our heads up and take the time to talk to the people we work with, it can make the world of difference. Our actions (or lack of) have impact so we must take responsibility for them.