A Guide to Navigating Hazardous Conversations

Posted On: April 28, 2018 by: Doug Lundrigan

There are typically 3 types of hazardous conversations. Ones that go badly, ones that go well, and ones that go avoided! Think of a conversation you’ve had that you wished had gone better, and now imagine it went exactly the way you hoped. In this article, we will reveal the secrets and techniques of people who masterfully prepare for and navigate hazardous, high stakes conversations.One of the most hazardous conversations we encounter in the workplace is giving negative feedback to employees, coworkers, contractors, and customers. In 2009 a Gallup Inc. study of over 1,000 employees based in the US revealed some impressive information about the impact of feedback. The survey asked each worker to rate their manager on whether they focused on the employee’s strengths and positive characteristics, or focused on weaknesses and negative characteristics. Respondents that did not choose either were classified as being “ignored by their manager.” Results showed that employees receiving positive feedback were up to 30x more engaged than the employees receiving no feedback. This may not come as a surprise to anyone, but more interestingly employees that received negative feedback were up to 20x more engaged than the employees that received no feedback at all! Meaning, giving little to no feedback is much worse than giving negative feedback, according to the study.

So knowing that no feedback is much worse than negative feedback, how do you tell someone they have a booger on their nose or their skirt is too short? Or harder still, how do you tell someone their work is not up to par, or that their negative attitude is diminishing productivity in the office? How do you tell a contractor that the service they’re providing is below expectations, or tell a customer that their demands are unreasonable?If thinking about those statements makes you squirm in your seat, it doesn’t have to. Confident communication can make or break your career. Obtaining the right skills empowers you to face hazardous conversations comfortably, without stress or avoidance. It sets the tone in all your relationships at home, and at work. It can lead you down a path of leadership and high positions, rather than being passed by while chasing some of your biggest dreams.

Although we can’t control other people’s reactions, there are some ways we can prepare and educate ourselves to better steer the boat through these rough waters. Here are 3 steps to follow when the time arrives for a difficult conversation.

Step 1: Set the stage.

Check your heart. No matter how hard we try to be cordial on the outside, people usually respond to how we are feeling towards them on the inside. When preparing for a hazardous conversation, check where your heart is. Do you already dislike this person and are going into the conversation with some pre-loaded ammunition based on past annoyances? Ask yourself “what is my end goal for this conversation? What do I really want from them and what do I want for our relationship?” Do I value and respect the humanity of this person, and do I want a good relationship with them? Use these answers to prepare a script of some fact-based phrases you can use to direct the conversation.

Ask for permission to start the conversation. Let them know you have a sensitive topic to speak about by saying something like “When you have a few minutes I want to talk with you,” or “Can I talk to you for a minute?” This slightly more formal invitation lets the person know that this conversation is pre-planned and a priority. One of the most awkward things about awkward conversations is when it is unexpected. Set the expectation right from the start.

Take it private. Privacy can feel uncomfortable at first, but shows respect for the person’s feelings and reputation. You can talk in your office, away from the group or if there is really no private place, borrow someone else’s office or invite them to a coffee shop during a lunch break. It’s worth the effort to show the person that you care about their feelings.

Step 2: Give Feedback

State the problem. Be candid without judgment. Tell them the facts by saying something like “I’ve noticed…” or “It has come to my attention… ” Show them that you care about them and you care about their career. Many people struggle to give feedback because they hate to feel mean. They want to avoid making others feel bad but what if it was you? Would you rather walk around with food stuck in your front teeth, or would you rather someone just tell you? Would you rather work your tail off in a project doomed to be unsuccessful, or have office coworkers gossip about you unknowingly? Most people agree that they would rather be respectfully told what the issue was. Giving constructive or necessary feedback shows that you care about them, what they are working on and about their career or reputation.

State the consequences. Make the issue less about how you are personally impacted, and more about how they and the organization could or will be impacted.

Ask the other person’s opinion. Once you’ve said what you came to say, ask them for their thoughts, find out how they are handling the information and expect them to be defensive. It is absolutely human nature to become defensive when being told to make a change. Expect it, and give them time to process without making it worse.

Step 3: Make a request

Agree on a change. First ask them what change they think needs to be made, then give your input and decide together what change could help the situation. Be clear in what result you want from this conversation. When you agree on a change, get out of there. Negative feedback should last no more than 2 minutes; people don’t want to sit there in the awkward, defensive feeling. Let them escape.

Follow Up. Often the problem may not resolve in just one conversation and you may need to bring it up again. This is the accountability portion of the feedback and what sets apart true leaders.

Build the relationship. Make a special effort to ensure the two of you are in good standing. Talk with the person often and show genuine friendship and care. Build a more trusting, worthwhile relationship.

Being a great leader and having these hard conversations take courage and effort. Each time you are stretched to navigate an experience like this you become a more refined team member and a greater, more trusted leader. You have it in you to handle these conversations with grace.

If this article struck a chord with you, Lighthouse Leadership will be hosting a FREE live webinar on their most impressive, top-selling course “Hazardous Conversations: Say The Right Thing When Stakes Are High” on May 22nd. Do not miss this incredible opportunity to refine your skills by an expert in the field at no expense to you. If you have attended Lighthouse’s Hazardous Conversations workshop, this webinar will be a powerful reinforcement of your knowledge. To gain in-depth knowledge and understanding of practical solutions for the workplace, register HERE for more details!

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