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All Gain, No Pain: Making the Most of Difficult Conversations

It happens to every leader: You have to meet with one of your team members and you already know it's going to be a difficult conversation. How do you give honest, constructive feedback while ensuring everyone leaves feeling heard and valued?

Janet M. Harvey, MCC, CEO of inviteCHANGE, works with leaders and people-managers all over the world who face this dilemma regularly. Here’s 3 simple ideas that Janet uses to help you approach these conversations with confidence, knowing they are the best conversations to be having.

1. See the whole person. Regardless of what’s happening right now, remember that you hired this person because they were right for the job. As a whole person, they’re resourceful and capable and have demonstrated their creativity, which means they’re much more than this one situation.

Stand confident that you've picked the right people, found the right skill sets, and put together a sales team that ticks all the boxes—now it's up to you to coach your sales team to success.

Your opportunity in this moment is to see beyond the immediate circumstances and help that employee remember all of who they are. How can you invite them to bring more of their resources and capabilities to this situation? Approaching it this way keeps it from being personal and puts you both in a ‘solution’ mindset.

2. Let go of assumptions. You may have heard a conversation or observed a behaviour, and now you're interpreting that information and making assumptions about what happened and why. You might even be concluding already that this person is just wrong for the job. But take a moment to ask yourself: “What questions can I ask this employee that will help me, as their leader, really understand what they were thinking?”

There are always two sides to a story, so it's important to get the full picture before you act on assumptions -- especially if you’re taking those actions to relieve some pain or suffering that’s resulted from the situation. And that brings us to the third point.

3. Move beyond the drama. Anytime we find ourselves facing a difficult conversation, our emotions get elevated. And the minute you tell that employee to come to your office at 3 o’clock to talk, so did theirs. You both enter the conversation feeling some tension, despite the pleasant small talk.

Moving beyond the drama means being respectful and clear, and getting right to the point. “We're having this conversation because the situation that came up last week has created a breakdown, so I wanted to talk with you about what was happening for you within the team. What do you think led to this result? What can we do differently next time for a better outcome?” When you’re clear and direct, you invite co-creation of a solution – there’s no drama needed. You’re two collaborative thinkers who care about the shared purpose of the team and the organization, working together to succeed.

With these three points in mind, difficult conversations don't need to be difficult. Instead, they can restore your faith in the whole, resourceful, capable, creative person that you brought onto your team and who still has all those qualities. This approach also creates psychological safety and reinforces your role in creating that in the workplace.

Janet M. Harvey, MCC

Experienced with individuals at the Board of Directors, “C” Chair, Executive and Senior Management levels, Janet assists executives in adopting effective habits of perception and behavior to lead and accelerate corporate strategies. Typical engagements address executive development in the following areas: articulate and inspire through clarity of vision, enable respectful challenge, debate and catalyze synergy for strategic business choices, risk/reward critical thinking about investments and shareholder value, plan leader succession and architect sustainable cultural/strategic change.
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