I was talking with a friend recently about a dissolving business relationship. I’d hired a contractor for a job, and it hadn’t worked out, so I’d decided it was time to move on. My friend said, “That sounds like a tough conversation. How do you pull that off?”
Answering somewhat instinctively, I said, “You’ve got to be okay with having a little blood on the table.”
In three decades of hundreds of business relationships, I’ve become convinced of this point. In hard conversations, you’ve got to be okay with not everything getting perfectly resolved to the point that everyone happily agrees. You’ve got to be able to pull it off better than Leslie Knope.
Let me be clear. I like to think of myself as a nice guy, but what I’ve learned is that I sometimes have to choose between the productive conversation and the one where everyone likes me. That doesn’t mean I’m a jerk (hopefully); it just means I aim for a clear conversation over a congenial conversation when I have to choose. If you have an extra dose of people-pleaser in you, this will always be extra hard.
Sure, there are some people who love conflict (maybe a little too much). But if you’re not in that category, it’s worth taking the time to consider how to have a hard conversation. Dissolving a partnership, rebuking a co-worker, firing an employee, correcting over-spending. You could add your own topic to the list, but you get the idea—conversations that may cut and spill some blood (metaphorically speaking, of course). In other words, there will be some pain, agony, and negative emotions spilling out.
With that in mind, here are some tips for before, during, and after these conversations:
Before the Conversation
- Change your perspective—You’ve got to die to your desire to being liked. As the colonialist William Penn said, “Avoid popularity. It has many snares and no real benefit.” This fact seems basic, but so many leaders struggle here. Being liked cannot be your goal. If it is, you’ll either avoid hard conversations altogether or you’ll have them halfway, which can be even worse. This HBR article sums it up well.
- Get Facts—Before you deliver bad news to an employee, a partner, or a client, make sure you actually need to. If you’re responding to something you’ve actually seen or experienced, facts serve to rein in your emotions. So make some notes on what happened, how often it happened, what the expectations were, and where those expectations were made clear. If you’re responding to something you’ve heard, make sure you’re not being held hostage by someone’s bitterness and ask around to get some more information.
During the Conversation
- Be direct—The conflict-averse people hope they can be heard without anything being said. They hope everyone will pick up on the subtle hints they drop. But in reality, you’ve been thinking about this for a while and the person on the other side of the table hasn’t, so it’s clearer in your mind than in theirs. You’ve got to be direct.
As Bruce Lee said, “Simplicity is the shortest distance between two points.” We’re going to move in a different direction. I need you to change in this area by _________________. This didn’t meet my expectation by _______________. If this continues, we will _____________________. Don’t leave something for a later conversation or email. Say it in the meeting. This also means you may need to recap what you said before everyone walks out the door.
- Listen well—Even if you have gathered facts, you might be wrong. Even if you’re right, caring for the person requires considering their perspective and context. Even though you’ve taken all this time to consider what you need to communicate, you’ve got to listen. The basic rule of marital conflict applies here—when the other person is talking, if you’re thinking primarily of what you’re going to say next, you’re not listening.
- Don’t try to make everyone happy—I know I mentioned this before, but it’s so challenging that I need to say it again. One article put it this way: “A great leader wants to earn respect. A mere manager wants to be liked. …Great leaders recognize that their job is to get people to do things they might not want to do … [and] know that cordiality is necessary but also that they might sometimes have to sacrifice short-term likability in favor of long-term respect.”
After the Conversation
- Offer a positive recap—Send an email to all the parties recapping new roles and how you’re all moving forward. What did you all agree on and what good came out of the conversation? I know that “agree on” is a loose term because it may have simply been you telling everyone a new reality, but use the “we” language as you talk about next steps and new roles.
- Move on—Assuming you didn’t just fire someone, jump back into normal business as soon as possible. Don’t leave this hanging over their heads. Give them a chance to improve their performance by jumping into a new project together, and don’t introduce the project by saying “Remember, what we can’t have this time is _________________.” If they can’t remember the hard conversation you just had with them, the business relationship may not be a fit.
I wrote a blog post a few months back talking about my growing desire for people to “tell it like it is.” Maybe it’s that I’m getting older and I don’t have patience, but I don’t want things to drag out. Give it to me straight.
That’s part of it, I suppose, but I also agree with the idea that conflict can bring about growth. It can bring about growth for the individual if I’m providing good feedback, and it can bring about growth for the company when conflict arises from different perspectives.
You may not be doing someone a favor by avoiding the conversation. A little blood on the table can actually lead to great organizational and personal health and growth.