Fostering Relationships: Leadership Principles for Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations are just about as fun as a root canal, but they are way easier than the pain of not getting the needed root canal. Effective leaders make difficult conversations happen because they are necessary for growth, excellence and the long-term health of an organization or team. Here is a short list of difficult conversations that happen in the workplace:

  • Explaining why someone is not getting a promotion.
  • Confronting repeating unacceptable behavior.
  • Providing honest feedback on poor performance.
  • Respectfully challenging a colleague or customer.
  • Holding someone accountable for their output.
  • Sharing tough decision outcomes.
  • Delegating responsibility.
  • Discussing a taboo issue like hygiene or dress.
  • Thoughtfully saying no.
  • Addressing opportunities for improvement.
  • Explaining options in the face of adversity.
So, why don't these conversations happen? A big reason is because, not only are the conversations challenging, but the skills needed to make them happen successfully are also inherently challenging. The really important skills here fall in the leadership category. The following five leadership principles (which can be applied to many more areas than just difficult conversations) will help you shape your thinking, your approach and your execution of the next difficult conversation you need to have with someone.

Leadership Principle One: Others First. Self Second.

  • Be committed to seeing the other person succeed.
  • Focus on the behavior or necessary changes, not the person.
  • Be entirely focused on the conversation and the other person. Remove distractions.
  • Arrange for a private setting.
  • Speak only for yourself, not on behalf of people not in the room.

Leadership Principle Two: Difficult is Not an Excuse to Delay.

  • We do more damage to others by not saying what needs to be said.
  • The process of the conversation might not be pleasant or positive, but the end result can be.

Leadership Principle Three: An Adaptive Approach is the Only Approach.

  • Honesty must be tempered with compassion and tact.
  • Make decisions on what to say intellectually, not emotionally.
Ask yourself these questions beforehand to prepare:

  • How will I be helping this person?
  • Will telling them this make them better in the long run?
  • Why am I delaying telling them this?
  • If I was in their position, would I prefer to know?
  • How will they react? How do I know?
  • Will they accept advice from me?

Leadership Principle Four: Find the Common Ground Quickly and Build From There.

  • Find something early on that you both can agree on.
  • Get them saying yes.
  • Be preemptive by fostering relationships with people.

Leadership Principle Five: Goals and Values Guide Action.

  • Be clear on the best possible outcome.
  • Be specific with discussion items, needed changes, etc.
  • Be clear on what company or organization value or belief is driving the need for the conversation.

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