How to handle tough conversations

CLAIRE DUNN
Last updated 10:28 11/08/2014

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Being on the receiving end of a job termination or lacklustre performance review is no fun, however the bearer of bad news is probably sweating just as much.

Whether it's an emotionally charged discussion around a redundancy or another colleague's behaviour, they are all tough conversations to have.

Australian behavioural scientist Darren Hill who co-authored Dealing with the Tough Stuff - How to Achieve Results from Key Conversations, says it's how we handle these conversations that define us, and our careers.

"Difficult situations at work weigh heavily on us and while making minor changes to how you deal with the 'tough stuff' might seem small today, over the course of time, those small changes can make a huge impact," says Hill.

Publisher of Australian opinion site TheBigSmoke Alexandra Tselios says there's no time to beat around the bush when it comes to having tough conversations, especially for start-ups.

"I've worked in public service where the red tape means these things take months but in start-ups the most important thing is time. If something isn't working you need to fix it fast," says Tselios, who also consults to young Australian start-ups.

Tselios agrees her "naming it" approach can sometimes seem blunt.

"I recently had an issue with a young assistant who would say 'gotcha' all the time. I soon realised it was just a social nuance thing and she didn't actually understand what I was asking."

That particular tough conversation resulted in a crying employee in her office.

"I told her 'email me a million times but just don't say you've got it when you haven't'. I was empathetic of her feelings but I'm not the holding hands type," Tselios says.

"I've been too hard at times and taken advantage of when I've been too soft. I'm still learning."

Managing director and founder of the AussieCommerce Group Adam Schwab says the toughest conversation for him is sacking a good employee.

"It's hard enough breaking bad news to anyone, but worse when it's a valued team member who for some extraneous reason doesn't have a role any more," says Schwab.

Schwab has cushioned the blow for a number of employees by offering them to stay on for a certain period of time until they find a new job.

A more common scenario sees Schwab addressing underperformance, a conversation he says is all about "balance".

"It's rare for people to underperform in all areas so I try to focus on the positives as much as negatives. I don't want people upset and disillusioned."

According to Hill, the toughest conversations are generally one of three. Here are his tips on handling them:

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1.     "You no longer have a job." The dismissal or restructure conversation.

Don't attempt to remove emotion from the conversation. Recognise that tears and sadness are OK but tread carefully with sympathy versus empathy. Statements such as, 'It looks like you are really upset' are helpful while 'I'm sorry this is happening to you' 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.

The social rule of direct eye contact is dangerous. Instead of eye contact share an independent visual medium such as some written notes to help you talk about "it".

2. "I don't like your attitude." The awkward personality conversation.

Never use phrases like "I don't want you to take this the wrong way". This is a classic priming statement and now the person is on the lookout for a way to "take it the wrong way". Always prime the person 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." This conversation will head south, fast. Take the unhelpful trait and find a strength - cynical becomes realistic and interfering becomes inquisitive.

3.     "Your work is just not good enough." The underperformance conversation.

One of the biggest mistakes people make is to focus on 'traits' instead of 'behaviours'. Traits are often enduring patterns and thinking you can change them in a half hour conversation is ambitious. Don't tell someone they "lack initiative" - highlight that they rarely put their hand up to lead projects and you will have a much higher chance of success.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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