With up to 16,500 public service jobs cut in the recent Federal Budget and key industries such as mining and motoring going through enormous change, the coming financial year will see tough times for many Australian businesses.
As July 1 looms many of us will also be forced to tackle tricky conversations under the midyear microscope. Whether it’s an emotionally-charged discussion around a job termination, company restructure, performance review or another colleague’s behaviour, the common denominator is that all of these conversations are tough.
It’s these conversations that weigh heavily on us. They keep us awake at night, consume our thoughts and can even infect our home relationships. While making minor changes to how you deal with the ‘tough stuff’ might seem small today, make no mistake – over the course of time, those small changes can make a huge impact.
Here are my tips for handling the three toughest conversations that you will ever have in the workplace:
1. The emotional dismissal conversation
‘You no longer have a job’.
- Don’t even attempt to remove emotion from the conversation. It’s impossible. And during these conversations there will be emotion and you will have to deal with it. It’s important to recognise that tears and sadness are okay. Tread carefully when walking the line between sympathy and empathy however. Use statements such as, ‘it looks like you are really upset’ while avoiding words like ‘I’m sorry this is happening to you’, as it sends the message ‘I’m glad it’s you and not me’.
- Always remember to keep the tone and volume of your voice underneath the other person’s. If it does get heated, which can happen when emotions are present, voices can be raised. The important thing to remember is to not match the escalation. People do not usually sustain shouting for very long if the other party doesn’t reciprocate the loudness or intensity as it makes them feel uncomfortable.
- The social rule of direct eye contact is dangerous. We’re taught to look someone in the eye to show that we’re serious and respectful, but this is the most personal communication medium and the person on the receiving end often has no choice but to take the message personally. Can you see why this wouldn’t work when telling someone that they’re being made redundant? ‘Share’ an independent visual medium such as some written notes or a pertinent document. This helps you to talk about ‘it’ (the restructure or termination) instead of ‘you’ and de-personalises the conversation.
2. The awkward personality conversation
‘I don’t like your attitude’.
- Never use phrases like ‘I don’t want you to take this the wrong way.’ This is a classic priming statement and now, whether they were going to or not, the person receiving the message is on the lookout for a way to ‘take it the wrong way.’ Never prime the listener for the very thing that you actually want them to steer clear of. Always prime them towards the successful outcome, such as ‘I need us to both be on the same page’.
- Avoid naming unhelpful traits. ‘I want to talk about you being arrogant.’ Ouch. I can guarantee this conversation will head south, fast. Take the unhelpful trait in question and find a strength within it. For example, cynical becomes realistic, while interfering becomes inquisitive. Focussing on strengths paints a different picture, yet remain on the same topic. For instance – instead of arrogance – “One of your strengths is that you’re a confident guy, but there are times when your confidence can be a little overwhelming or misplaced. Let me give you an example…”.
3. The underperformance conversation
‘Your work is just not good enough’.
- One of the biggest mistakes people make is to focus on ‘traits’ instead of ‘behaviours’. This is wrong for two reasons. Firstly, confusion occurs easily when we talk in traits because the definition of what constitutes a certain trait varies from person to person. When I talk about being dedicated, I mean taking on extra tasks, where as you might interpret dedication as more thoroughness in your submitted projects. Secondly, traits are usually enduring patterns so thinking you can effectively change them in a half hour conversaton is a little ambitious. Don’t tell someone that they ‘lack initiative (trait)’ -highlight that they rarely put their hand up to lead projects (behaviour) and you will have a much higher chance of success.
When you’re on the receiving end
Being on the receiving end of a tough conversation at work is extraordinarily stressful.
With over one-third of our lives spent at work, it’s easy for a job to become a large part of your identity, and the anguish over being confronted with tough news is very, very real.
It’s difficult to rationalise if you don’t have the full picture, so even if you’re seething with rage, or stunned in disbelief, you need to match the tough conversation with tough questions. Who has made this decision? What will this mean in the coming weeks? Are there other courses of action?
Write the answers down as an emotional, agitated brain tends to edit out important information.
Remember this: All bad seas are followed by calm weather. This won’t last forever, and focusing on the next best steps instead of dwelling on the wrongs will give you the opportunity to make the best of your situation.
Darren Hill is co-founder of Pragmatic Thinking, a behaviour and motivation strategy company whose clients include Fortune 50 and ASX top-20 companies. Darren works with ambitious people wishing to effect meaningful change in forward-thinking organisations. More information at his website.
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