Seven Rules for Difficult Conversations and Four Reasons to Avoid Them

FeedbackFeedback is “the fuel that drives improved performance”1. We all know that, but giving it effectively, especially when it has negative implications, can be tricky. How do you feel about it? Do you, like many leaders, find it difficult and wish you could avoid it? Further to our post on having difficult conversations in global virtual teams, we thought we would drill down into the detail a little more. My experience is that there are key steps you can take to radically improve the chances of delivering feedback well. However, it all depends on mindset. It works for most people but, as we are all different and see the world through different lenses, it may not work for you. Here’s when you probably should NOT attempt to give feedback:

Reason #1 – you do not have a genuine desire to help your team member or colleague to improve. If your ultimate goal is not to help them improve their performance but for them to leave the team or the organisation, they will sense that, no matter what words and tone you adopt. People are much more likely to respond well to criticism if they know the person offering the feedback is on their side and wants the best for them. Feeling the opposite may just fuel a sense of hopelessness.

Reason #2 – related to reason #1 but slightly different. You definitely have a desire for your team member to up their game but you can’t see that they are adding any value at all to the team or indeed that they have any untapped talent to draw out. If this is the case it is unlikely you will find it easy to help them identify strengths on which to build. People need to feel that they matter and that they can make a difference: is very difficult to feel motivated to improve you can’t link your own contribution to a team or company goal.

Reason #3 You have made an assumption about the other person’s intentions. This is a very easy trap to fall into but actually we don’t have access to anyone’s intentions but our own. No matter how well you think you know a person, you can never be sure that you know exactly what they’re thinking.  You can guess well and tap into messages via their non-verbal communication, but you don’t “know”.  Assumptions lead to crossed wires and to both you and your colleague limiting your possibilities.

Reason #4 a lot of time has elapsed since the problem on which you wish to comment arose.When you give feedback on a timely basis, it is easier to examine what’s happened rather than rely on hindsight or memory. Otherwise it is very difficult to examine what or how something was done, and then to connect the feedback to actions.

If you are still reading, this approach will likely work for you. Here are my 7 rules:

      1. Describe specific behaviours, giving examples where possible. Phrases like “I need you to be more of a team player” and “you never seem to collaborate” may be meaningful to you but are not specific enough to demonstrate to the listener exactly what you mean. Instead, be prepared to describe specific situations, for example when you have noticed a lack of involvement in meetings or a lack of response to calls for help from colleagues. Similarly, be clear on what exactly you do want to see in terms of behaviour that will signify they are meeting the required standard: we all need to know what we to can do to improve and what ‘good’ will look like.
      2. In the same vein, avoid speaking in euphemisms, such as saying sales figures were “disappointing” when you really mean they were way off the mark. Or that the report was “a bit late” when it was two weeks overdue and causing problems for the customer. Again, be specific and make sure everyone knows what is acceptable.
      3. Stick to observations rather than evaluations. Telling someone they are aggressive could easily be interpreted as a personal attack and is very likely to trigger a defensive reaction and shut down the listener’s ability to hear your message. If, on the other hand, you can describe the impact a particular remark had on you and how it made you feel, you have a much higher chance of getting your point across as it will be difficult for the listener to argue with the outcome described as what is real for you.
      4. Know your weak spots and any tendency to overact when they are hit. Mine is when my good intentions are misinterpreted as deliberate misbehaviour. If we are taken off guard we can easily go into combat mentality and lose control of the situation and forget our aim of helping someone to improve.
      5. Encourage reflection and dialogue. This could involve posing open questions such as “Did it go as planned?“, “If not, what were the reasons?” and “If you were doing it again what would you do the same next time and what would you do differently?
      6. Respond to defensive ploys (e.g. stonewalling, sarcasm, shouting, silence etc) in the moment by naming what is happening. For example, “I don’t know how to interpret your silence” and “I’m sensing there is something you are reluctant to bring up” are neutral statements of how you perceive the situation rather than judgements and should promote a more productive dialogue.
      7. Request action that will meet both your needs (and the needs of the business) and theirs. To increase the chances of the listener taking ownership of the action, where possible make sure it is truly a request and not a demand (i.e. an attempt to motivate, however subtly, out of fear, guilt, shame or obligation).
What would you add to the list? What is your experience of turning difficult conversations into opportunities for growth?
For more information on the work Clare McNamara does with leaders and their teams please click here.
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  1. Parsloe (1995 

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