Saturday, September 22, 2007

Difficult Conversations Don't Have to Be So Difficult

No one could believe it – Radio Shack let thousands of people go and they did it through email! Most people dislike delivering bad news in person, and will find any way to avoid it.

Making eye contact with another person who you care about, and with whom you need to deliver a difficult message – probably creates disappoint, upset or hurt – and is one of the most difficult things for human beings to do. So, rather than confronting these challenges, we often take to many alternatives which at the time seem to be less challenging or hurtful but later turn out to cause more pain.

Discussing/Delivering/Moving Through Bad News

Clouding the Issue
Two years ago I was asked to coach a CEO who was one of 6 reporting to a chairman. The difficult message the chairman wanted to give the leaders was that if she didn’t raise the performance of her team she would be asked to leave. Rather than giving that message, the chairman wrote a 6 page report that provided feedback and 98% was about how good the leader was. Embedded in the document were 2-3 lines which briefly stated that the chairman expected a higher level of performance from the leader. When I asked the leader what this document communicated to her and what she would do as a result, she said she was doing everything right and therefore was on the right track for her bonus.

Failing to be candid with others is one of the largest reasons why people ultimately leave companies. When we think we are doing the right things, we keep doing them. When key messages are embedded into larger messages, they get lost, are “sandwiched in” which means we can easily discount them or deal with them as less important.

Candor is Golden
In the July – August 1997 HBR article called Fair Process, the authors W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne state that “people do care about outcomes, but they care more about the processes that produce those outcomes.” People want to know where they stand and why. If there is a difficult message they need to hear, employees would prefer to know the truth rather than a watered down or clouded version of it.

Candor supersedes fluff in situations where truth is the medicine needed. Fear of telling a person they have failed, or are about to be fired, or they didn’t make the cut are realities in life. We all know this. Yet we do more harm to an individual by trying to soft pedal our way through a difficult conversation.

Here are some questions to ponder, and address:

How should a leader address customers; shareholders; the press; employees? Are there different components of the message that should be shared with one group and not another? Who needs what type of information?
  • Unmet Expectations: Most difficult messages come from a very common origin - unmet expectations. I failed to deliver the results you expected. You failed to deliver the results I expected. It is difficult because it contains embarrassment and disappointment – two things human beings dislike the most. It is a social embarrassment and when this is the core of the context, then people want to deflect the message, minimize it, blame others, avoid it – or any other tactic they can think of.
    Every difficult message has some dynamics that are unique to the situation. And each group of people may have different messages that are required to share, however there are a few things in common with all. These are all people – and in each case they are important relationships that you want to preserve and sustain even thought the message you need to discuss or deliver is different. If you don’t care about the relationship then you can say anything you want.
    In this case you can “data dump” or get the situation off your chest and act mindlessly about how you say it. Sometimes this can be venting or letting it all out if the issue is about your relationships with them.
  • Caring: However in most other cases, if your goal is to share something that is considered “difficult” and you want to sustain the relationship, you need to set the context for a sustained relationship up front so the person knows that this may be difficult for both of you… and that you care about them regardless of how difficult the message will be.
  • Candor: In addition you want to be explicit and honest about what you are sharing. Candor communicates respect, and that is what people want most. Not candor that looks like blame or anger, but candor that looks like the real truth.
  • Failure to Deliver Results on Your End: For example, your company failed to make its numbers this quarter and it’s because of a delay in the launch of a product. There will be an impact on stock price, or deliveries, on employee bonuses - so the impact is across the board with employees, shareholders, press and even customers. Identify where the impacts lie, take responsibility for the event, ask people to accept your apology, explain your new strategy for making it better, and asking for their on going support or help in any way that is needed.


  • Do be specific and clear about what is happening, rather than clouding the message with hyperbole
  • Do focus on outcomes and especially those that may be good or better for the person down the road. They are focusing on the loss and you want them to focus on how to use this situation to grow and to gain something better than what they had before.
  • Do deliver the message in person whenever you can. It’s felt as honest caring and does make a difference. It also allows a discussion about feared implications which are what often cause people to spiral down. Fear implications are “mental imaginations of the worst” and they can be controlled by a dialogue around the news. Conference call is next after face-to-face. Again it allows for dialogue. Emails or newsletters are last on the list. It turns something that should be personal into something very impersonal – and that is the wrong message to be sending. Some employees have learned their company is going down, or they will be losing a job in the newspaper… that is the worst example of how to do it right.
  • Do be open to discussing the impact and implications of the news. People will always say after the fact, that when a leader was open to discussion, it makes them feel that the difficult news was palatable. They feel if the process of exchange is fair and open, with candor, respect and caring, then they can accept the news. Also, if there is dialogue they may come up with other ways of handling the situation that had not been revealed before.

A Process for Discussing Difficult News with Candor and Caring
When bad news can be set in a context for future growth, it is no longer seen as bad news - it’s seen as a new way to achieve success. Too often, we project “feared implications” onto a difficult conversation, and make it mean the worst case scenarios that our mind can conjure. As a result, we begin to fear the encounter so much that we either avoid it or we project fears into it that are beyond what is healthy – thereby shaping the actual impact in negative ways.

We can minimize the impact of this difficult situation by setting the context for the conversation first. First we need to start by asking ourselves a set of questions even before the conversation so we are prepared to move ourselves mentally from fear and protection, to a state of partnering.

Prepare Self

How do I want this person to feel after our conversation?
What can I do to allow them to hear the news with an open mind and heart?
How can I set the context for an empathetic exchange?

Engage with Other

  1. Set the Context for Caring and Empathy: Includes everything from: "I need to have an important conversation with you... and I really spent time thinking about it before I called” to “I really care about you and what you are thinking and feeling about this.... and I believe this will be a very valuable conversation for us.” You can’t partner unless you care!
  2. Explore Desired Outcomes: Share what you hope they will gain from the conversation. “I really hope this will help you grow... understand something important... take away the confusion... clarify... or deepen their understanding of ... what you say depends on the news.” Conversations help us grow!
  3. Share Perspectives with Candor: Be open, honest and non-judgmental. People usually know when they have failed. Be empathetic, yet firm. When you find things that the person clearly missed... say "let me share some thing you can do in the future to make this phase easier to manage.” "What we’re going to talk about are the projects you were working on - I know they were important to you, and to me.... this was a very challenging project with lots of unexpected dynamics.... and at the end of the project the results were not what either of us expected.” Focus on the future so this is a learning experience!
  4. Discover What’s Important to Both of You: It’s important to discuss the news in the context of a larger frame of reference. For example, if it's a person who failed to deliver results and they are scarred that they really disappointed you, you can say something like “I'd like to hear more about how this unfolded for you... what do you think worked well, what did not... what was the toughest part... etc.” Then share your perspective and together get a clearer view of what happened. Be sure you make as few assumptions or interpretations as possible - and listen well!
  5. Agree to Next Steps: Discuss how to do this differently in the future. Make sure the person realizes how to improve, not just that they missed the mark. People are usually more responsive to "constructive foresight" than "constructive criticism" which sends most of us into protect behavior.
  6. Contract for Success: Discuss how what you need to give and receive for this to be successful. How will you measure success? How often will you communicate? What will you each do if the changes are not working?



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