Monday Mornings with Madison


Regardless of the economy, both in good times and bad, there will be occasions when you have to have a tough conversation with someone at work. How do you tell a vendor of many years that you’re cutting back on their services when you know that you are one of their biggest customers?  What is the right way to let a team member know that their work has serious mistakes and must be redone?  How do you tell a long-time employee that, due to the economy, you have to let him go?  How do you explain to a colleague that an important project won’t be ready on deadline?  

These are the conversations we all dread.  Conversations that require us to deliver bad news.  Conversations that bring up a sensitive subject.  Conversations about a project or meeting that’s gone wrong.  But as long as we have any workplace responsibilities, we will sometimes have to face the challenge of communicating difficult news with clarity, sensitivity and diplomacy. 

The mere thought of having these difficult conversations fills most people with anxiety and distracts them from their work. No one wants to be the bad guy, especially when the situation can blow up in their face. On the other hand, we can’t simply avoid the problem either, even though that option is tempting.  We need to take charge of the situation and speak effectively. But how?

The best answer for difficult situations is to think ahead and be prepared.  You can’t entirely eliminate the stress of delivering bad news but you can reduce it. Here are some practical tips for talking to someone when the subject is really, really uncomfortable.

  1. Prepare your script beforehand. Instead of wishing the problem would just go away, spend your energy on developing a specific script. Think of what you need to say and what the other person’s objections might be. Then you can prepare your responses to each of those points.  Pre-empting the objections ensures you make your points.
  1. Take control of the conversation. The single most important element in getting a positive resolution to a difficult conversation is to take charge of the interaction.  That doesn’t mean monopolizing the conversation or bullying the other person.  It does mean that you initiate the conversation and direct its course. This reduces the risk of getting derailed by objections and attacks.
  1. Give the bad news upfront. Tough messages should be simply, calmly and clearly stated in the first sentence. Don’t raise the pitch or tone of your voice and don’t use offensive or demeaning language. Always be truthful: the most effective communication emanates from honesty. 
  1. Say what you want.  Don’t beat around the bush, imply, or drop hints.  Come right out and say what is on your mind with direct, specific statements or requests.  If you are not direct, you give the other party a chance to sidestep the entire issue.
  1. Avoid the blame game. The goal is not to judge right and wrong.  The goal is to resolve remaining issues and ensure a positive outcome in the future.
  1. Paraphrase. To create clarity and to let people know you’re genuinely listening, summarize what they’re telling you — and ask them to do the same.
  1. Be prepared for bad reactions. Finger-pointing, denial, arguments, anger and tears are all possible outcomes of tough conversations. You cannot control the other person’s reactions, but you can anticipate them, and be emotionally and physically ready.  If, for example, you expect tears, have a box of tissue on hand and a bottle of water. 
  1. Absorb or deflect anger. If you are met with anger, the best response is to disarm the other party by either absorbing their anger or deflecting it.  You absorb anger by acknowledging its validity and refusing to respond in kind. This can be communicated with something like:  “I can understand your being angry.  I would be too.”  You deflect anger by questioning its validity and suggesting a more productive option. You could say, “I’m a bit surprised you feel that way. But I’d like to focus, instead, on finding a solution.”
  1. Have the last word.  In most situations, it is best to have the last word in the dialogue.  Having the last word does two things.  It makes sure you retain control of the dialogue and allows you to close the conversation on positive terms.
  1. Have perspective.  Imagine it is three months or ten years from now. Put the difficult conversation into perspective by thinking of the future. Conversations that are hard right now will seem less daunting when you look back on them.

“Bad news isn’t wine. It doesn’t improve with age.”  Colin Powell

© 2009 – 2011, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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