5 Steps to Make the Difficult Leadership Conversation Easier

She walks past your office.  Upon noticing her you get a heavy feeling in the pit of your stomach.  You know you have to address the situation.  It’s been dragging on for weeks now and at times it feels as if it is all you can think about.

You’ve been putting it off and coming up with excuses and delaying the process.  But you know, at some stage you will have to bite the bullet, call her in, sit her down and address the issue head on.  The difficult leadership conversation you have been putting off will have to happen.

I am sure we have all had this experience.  You know, the one where you need to have the difficult leadership conversation with an employee, but just cannot get yourself to call him or her in.  It drains you and as the time passes your stress levels start to rise, you feel frustrated with yourself and soon it is all you can think of.

The frustration you experience is because you know good leadership face difficult situations.  Good leadership does not shy away from having those conversations.  This all happens in a perfect world.

In the world we live in, leaders are normal people with flaws, fears and faults.  In this world leaders are people who sometimes just want to take the road of least resistance.

I think a lot of the adverse feelings we have towards having difficult conversations has to do with a lack of knowledge of how to handle the situation.  It would have been nice to have a framework within which you could conduct this conversation or at least a guideline on how to approach it.

Doug Stone, co-author of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most offer this framework for leaders conduct difficult conversations.  He proposes five steps to practise every day in your conversations with employees and co-workers, after you have corrected the three most common leadership conversation mistakes.

The Three Major Leadership Conversation Mistakes

During a difficult leadership conversation leaders often make these three mistakes. 

  • We assume we know all we need to know to understand and explain a situation.
  • We hide our feelings, or let them loose in ways we later regret.
  • We ignore who we are, acting as if our identity is separate from the issues.

Avoiding these mistakes is not always easy.  The only way to correct it is through a shift in your thinking process.  You have to make the shift in your thinking from “you need to explain yourself or deliver a message”, to “I need to listen and learn more about what is going on”, according to Stone.

The Five Step Leadership Conversation Framework

Step 1: Prepare For a Leadership Conversation by Walking Through the “Three Conversations”

Every difficult conversation is really three conversations in one:

  • The What Happened Conversation,
  • The Feelings Conversation, and
  • The Identity Conversation.

“We need to understand what the people involved are thinking and feeling but not saying to each other. In a difficult conversation, this is usually where the real action is,” says Stone. Before stepping into a discussion you know will be challenging, ask yourself these questions:

  • How do you see the situation?
  • Where does your story come from (information, past experiences, rules)?
  • What do you think you know about the other person’s viewpoint?
  •  What impact has this situation had on you?
  • What might their intentions have been?
  • What have you each contributed to the problem?
  • Next you have to manage your emotions.  Analyse your feelings asking yourself, “What bundle of emotions am I experiencing?”

Answering this question will help you determine the impact your emotions might have on the conversation.  By objectively analysing your emotions you can prevent being blindsided by unexpected emotions during the conversation, having a negative impact on the conversation.

Step 2: Check Your Purposes and Decide Whether to Raise the Issue

Your purpose for having the conversation can only be checked by a series of questions.  The critical question you have to answer is: “What do you hope to accomplish by having this conversation?”

  • Do you want to prove a point or change the other person?
  • How can you shift your stance to support learning, sharing and problem-solving?
  • Do you even need to raise the issue to achieve your purposes?
  • Can you affect the problem by changing your contributions?
  • If you don’t raise it, what can you do to help yourself let go?

Step 3: Start From the “Third Story”

If you do decide to raise a difficult issue, don’t lead in with your view or story.  Approach the conversation as if a third, neutral person is looking on and leading the conversation.  You have to describe the problem as the difference between your stories by including both viewpoints as a legitimate part of the discussion.  Make sure you share your purposes and let the other person know you are looking to sort out the situation together.

Step 4: Explore Their Story and Yours

Listen to understand the other person’s perspective on what happened.  Ask questions.  Acknowledge the feelings behind the arguments and accusations.  Paraphrase to see if you’ve got it.  Try to unravel how the two of you got to this place.  Share your own viewpoint, your past experiences, intentions, feelings. And constantly reframe assumptions: from truth to perceptions, blame to contribution, accusations to feelings.

Step 5: Problem-Solve

Invent options meeting each side’s most important concerns and interests. Keep in mind, one way relationships rarely last. Talk about how to keep communication open as you go forward.

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Shelia Heen.

About Joseph Hawking

I have a passion for people & leadership development and since I discovered my mom’s old typewriter as a boy, I have written in some form or another.
I started blogging in 2017 and in August 2018, I started The Leadership Connexion with the aim to make the connection between Business, Leadership and Life. My professional experience span across various business disciplines, including Training, Project Management, Human Resource Management and Finance. I have a MBA degree and I am co-founder and director of a Project Management Company.
I am part of the Leadership for The International Mentoring Network (IMN), South African Chapter, where I am a regular Idea Studio Facilitator and Annual IMN Conference Speaker. I believe that the highest form of living is using what you are blessed with to add value to other people’s lives.