How to have difficult conversations as a leader

09
May 17

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Sometimes people let us down. They don’t live up to our expectations and don’t do ‘the right thing’. And sometimes it’s appropriate to tell them what they did – or didn’t do – and why it has made us unhappy, disappointed or even annoyed.

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But how do we do it? Or more importantly, how do we do it so we get the best possible result? How do we do it so we have the best chance of the person:

  • Listening and understanding the point we’re trying to make;
  • Accepting what we’ve said – rather than ‘getting their back up’ and debating it; and
  • Cooperating and doing what we ask?

And, how do we do it so that we have the best chance of us looking professional, reasonable and fair?

Stick with the facts

Well the answer is pretty simple. And it’s this: just stick with the facts. It’s so simple and so obvious. After all, it’s common sense. Facts are good. And we all want to be known as someone who’s truthful and honest.

But here’s the thing. It’s surprising how often we don’t stick with the facts. We think we do, but we don’t. We don’t mean any harm. We’re not trying to be deceitful or dishonest. But nonetheless, we’re guilty. 

The facts are what the camera saw. That’s it. Nothing more and nothing less. No embellishment. No interpretation. No analysis. No mindreading. Nothing about what we believe to be underlying motives or mental attributes. And definitely nothing about our feelings of hurt and pain.

If we want to tell someone we’re unhappy with what they did or didn’t do, we need to stick with what the camera saw. That’s, of course, if we want to give ourselves the best chance of success.

If all we want to do is ‘get it off our chest’, ‘say what we really think’ or just ‘have a go’, then fine – as long as we know what we’re doing and we’re happy taking the risk. For the record, these are not facts.

  • Suzie’s not a team player
  • Sometimes John, you’re over confident
  • I’ve been treated like rubbish and I deserve better

They may well be true – at least in our eyes. However, they’re not what the camera saw. They’re not facts. Instead, they’re what we feel about a person’s behaviour – and how we feel about the person themselves.

The facts are more likely to be things like:

  • Yesterday, Suzie said she would complete the minutes of the meeting by 4pm. It’s now 3pm the following day and they’re not done.
  • John, when Wendy finished her talk at the staff meeting, I heard you say, ‘They should have got me to speak. Unlike Wendy, I know what I’m talking about.’
  • When I joined in the company, I was told I would have an interview every 12 months where I’d get to state my case for having my salary increased. I have never had one of these interviews.  

Facts are straight down the line descriptions of what happened; of who said and did what and when. And if we want to get the best possible result we need to stick to them.

If we don’t stick to them, we run the risk of the person not listening. We run the risk of the person not just disagreeing but perhaps taking offence. We run the risk of the person having every excuse to not ‘right the wrong’. And we also run the risk of being seen as unprofessional, unreasonable and unfair.



Mark will be facilitating a Workshop on ‘How to have difficult conversations as a leader’ at the Public Sector Women in Leadership conference, taking place in Canberra this June. Book soon to secure early bird rates!

Canberra Women in Leadership

Submitted by Mark McPherson

Mark has more than 40 years experience and he’s proud of it. He’s been a team member, a team leader, a manager and a manager of managers. He’s been a Tourist Guide, Science Teacher, Lecturer (Health Education and Behaviour Management), Senior Education Officer (TAFE Drug and Alcohol Education Program and NSW Board of Studies), Senior Health Promotion Officer, HIV/AIDS and Sexual Health Coordinator and Manager of Professional Development (NSW Heath), and Team Leader – Drug Programs Coordination Unit (NSW Police). He‘s been independent program evaluator, researcher, instructional designer and educator. These days, Mark concentrates on helping business owners, managers and employees at all levels of all organisations, Master Tough Conversations, Deal with Difficult People and Create Workplaces where People Work Together in Harmony (Best Practice behavior). Mark has formal qualifications in science, health, education and psychology – MEd, BSc, GradDipEd, GradDipHealth, GradDipPsych & DipHypn.

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