Delivering bad news. Taking on conflict. Confronting inappropriate behavior. Explaining hurt feelings. Changing course.
This happens at home, school, work, board rooms, churches, and in any personal or professional relationship which can exist.
I don’t know anyone who enjoys having hard conversations.
But everyone has to have them.
Avoiding hard conversations leaves you and the person needing to hear the message at odds and unable to move forward. But delivering an unclear or mixed message makes the situation even worse, leaves the hearer uncertain of what you mean, and prolongs resolving the issue.
While no one wants to tackle hard conversations, having them effectively can significantly improve your lives and others. Think of the mom who never disciplines her child because she doesn’t want to be “mean,” but then everyone around her has to deal with an unruly and ill mannered child. Think of the employer who doesn’t want to let the offensive/lazy/inappropriate employee go because she doesn’t like conflict. The entire work team is disrupted and her leadership ability is undermined.
- Be clear. This is the hardest but most critical element to hard conversations. What is the message you want to deliver? Know going in, in one to two sentences, what the message is and deliver it explicitly. “I am sorry, but we are going to lose money on this investment.” “You were disrespectful this week, so you may not go to the dance this weekend.” “We are going to have to move.” The best illustration of this is college acceptances or law firm offers when I was in school. The college rejection letter, like the law firm rejection letter, was a short one page document. “Thank you for your interest, we are unable to extend you an offer.” It was hard to receive but I was clear on the message
- Be brief. You do not need to be rude, but I find most of the muddling happens in trying to soften the blow of your clear punchline above. When you throw a lot of words before and after your punchline, the hearer gets less clear on your resolve and may believe there is some negotiating still to do. Take a conflict avoiding parent: We love you so much and we are so proud of you and you are such a blessing from God but we are concerned about the way you have been acting so we don’t want you to go to the dance this weekend but we’re going to make sure you get to go to the next one and you can still go out to dinner with everyone, etc. It telegraphs lack of resolve and soon you’ll be negotiating. This is even more important in the work environment. An employee who thinks the promotion is still on the table when it is not, leaves you with a restless and confused worker. A staffer who doesn’t believe the inappropriate language is a big deal, leaves you with ongoing behavior problems which may lead to even greater consequences for the worker and your company.
- Be respectful. All too often people equate hard conversations with mean conversations. You do not have to be mean to be clear. Take for example not hiring an intern: Thank you for spending your summer with us. We cannot offer you a permanent position. One critical characteristic of our full time employees is showing up consistently and on time so our clients know they can count us. You struggled with that this summer. We wish you the best in your future. This message was not mean. But it did communicate the reason the person did not receive the offer. Thanking a person and wishing them well are basic tools of human politeness, but without giving a brief reason for the decision the hearer cannot improve. Be calm and warm but decisive.
How do you deliver hard news? What has worked, or not worked, when you received hard news?