Difficult conversations and how to handle them

Written by Adrian Furnham Monday 12 December 2016
Delivering bad news is part of any manager’s role. But handled in the right way and it might not be as painful as you think
Colleagues challenging each other

Perhaps the best sign of a good manager is their ability to have “difficult conversations”

All managers have on occasions to break bad news and deal with “sensitive issues”. News about redundancy, mergers, acquisitions, corporate change and failure to be promoted. They may have to sack individuals, counsel others and deal with accidents. How about the BO problem? Or explaining why you have such low ratings at the annual appraisal?

Having a difficult conversation is a skill. You can learn it; even google it. You can even get and learn, the lines.

So, for the BO problem say: “I think that because of what I am going to say, in a short while both you and I will be rather upset.... But before I begin it is important to say that the problem I am going to deal with it easy to solve… John, I have noticed, as have those who work with you, that you often smell bad”.

The advice is: Don’t say stink and don’t use all those vague euphemisms such “I have noticed a subtle olfactory inclementness around you. After you have said “smell bad/unpleasant” wait. Say nothing. Expect tears or anger... probably both.

Read more: the top 10 most difficult conversations

Nobody likes doing having some of these conversations but they are pretty essential. But to hide behind caring-sounding emails, or making “sincere” video recordings simply will not do.

It is of necessity, a face- to-face business. Doing it well takes practice. It is an essential skill.

It is not counter-intuitive or rocket science. But it does take emotional intelligence, which appears to be a commodity in rather short supply in some circles. You have to prepare and read the cues.

Where to start?

The first set of decisions to be made is who give the news, to whom and where. Ideally in private and in person, but who is the best ‘person’ to do it?

Don’t treat this as a “get out” clause, farming the business out to a supportive and empathic subordinate. It is an important issue. Some people have the power, authority and responsibility to give the news and do the talking.

How many people should be on the giving side and how many on the receiving? It is not meant to be two deputations coming together (a la trade union bargaining). Yet sometimes recipients feel better if they can bring a friend, a supporter… but hopefully not a lawyer.

Usually one-on-one is best.

How to prepare?

Managers need to prepare how to phrase the crucial bits of the message. One needs to mentally rehearse this. And again the temptation to be vague and pusillanimous is often overwhelming.

It is usually not a good idea to have too many “pleasantries” at the beginning. And it is not a good idea to use polite, obfuscating euphemisms. “Gardening leave”, “letting go”, “out-placement counselling”, “consensual exiting” and the like may not be heard as clearly as “Your role is being made redundant”.

After a quick start when it is clear that one is trying to communicate clearly, compassionately and confidentially, it is wise to find out where the employee is “coming from”.

Few people are ignorant or unaware of serious organisational issues around them. Many suspect what is going to occur. Whether it is discipline or redundancy, many have a good idea of what the meeting is all about.

Discussing sensitive issues is as much about careful listening as careful talking. Best find out early both what they know and what they want to know.

Then tell them clearly the central message,: the bottom line… “We are making your position redundant”; “Your promotion application has been unsuccessful”; “You failed the assessment centre”.

Then be prepared for an emotional display. Allow for the message to sink in. In short shut up.

How to handle their response?

A variety of responses may occur, from anxiety and anger, to relief at having been told what they long suspected. The usual pattern is stunned silence; then tears; then anger, then bargaining.

The stoical and repressed may either do or say nothing and save up their outbursts for a more private moment. The tears bit may be rather embarrassing for the British male but not that difficult to cope with. Silence, a comforting touch, an understanding vocalisation.

Anger is common: “why me; it’s so unfair; you and your company are a bunch of…; I will consult my lawyer/union/journalist friends”.

It’s easy to react too much to this by being argumentative or combative. And it’s hard to recall that it’s a pretty natural response to being hurt, frustrated or surprised.

Let the cloud burst. Go at their pace. Let them describe fully their feelings. Lance the boil… Better now than later.

The hard bit is remaining empathic, patient, understanding. It is this bit people don’t like. Yet it may be the most important part of the whole thing.

It is terribly important to establish what the recipient has heard. It’s not always easy to find that out in a very emotional person. The questions is, have they heard the message clearly? Do they fully understand what you are saying? Do they understand the implication?

They may have questions and these need to be anticipated. It might indeed be a good idea to prepare a short handout with typical questions and clear responses. Old hands at the business become well versed in anticipating and answering all the questions, however trivial and daft they first appear to be.

Best to end by checking their understanding. Perhaps ask them to summarise the central features of the news as well as, if they want to, their reactions to them. This offers an opportunity to correct misunderstandings that easily occur among all the emotional stuff.

Two more things:

Arrange for a follow-up meeting which can go over the ground. Also take care of your own needs. Don’t do these meetings back to back. It’s tiring emotional labour giving bad news and discussing sensitive issues. One needs to restore equilibrium before doing it again without being jaded and inattentive.

Oh yes, and one more thing, they become less difficult with more practice and experience.

Adrian Furnham

Adrian Furnham

A business psychologist and author of 80 books and 1,000 scientific papers. An adjunct professor at the Norwegian Business School