Difficult conversations are part and parcel of leadership.

No one enjoys being the bearer of bad news, it can feel like we have to choose between being honest, and being liked, and no one doesn’t want to be liked.

The good news is, mastering the art of the crucial conversation can be learned. In fact this is one of the skills that sets great leaders apart from their peers. In this post we will look at how to deliver bad news and strengthen bonds with staff at the same time.

Sink Or Swim

Early on in my career in sport I learned the importance of having the hard conversations when I had to explain to athletes why they were not yet fully recovered from injury, and should not return to play.

Its tough telling someone who already feels bad (most athletes feel guilty when injured) that they have to feel bad for a little longer. It’s just as tough informing head coaches their athletes aren’t ready.

I made my fair share of mistakes early, but I worked to learn how to communicate effectively and when things worked out I took notice. Here are a few things I’ve learned:

1: Do your work early:

In the past I have covered the importance of spending time with your staff and showing them you care about them as people. If you haven’t done enough of this, it’s probably not going to go well no matter how good your intentions.

If your long lost Dad showed up one day and told you off for smoking cigarettes when you were a teenager, would you even listen?

Attempting to establish rapport and delivering bad news in the same interaction is a recipe for disaster. If staff know you genuinely care and have their best interests at heart, they will generally front up even after initially reacting angrily. If you’ve barely spent a minute with them, of course they’re going to pissed.

Also, it’s important that if you know bad news is coming, prepare them for it. Most people can take bad news if it is not entirely unexpected, its only when peoples expectations are violated that emotions tend to boil over.

Giving regular objective feedback when performance is not meeting objectives or expectations is crucial. These need not be long conversations, and if you leave it too late, you run the risk of surprising people in the worst way.

2: Show them how to take it

A comedian can pick someone from the crowd and be incredibly crass toward them, yet have that same person in hysterics. Posture, facial expressions, tone of voice and eye contact say just as much or more than words.

The way you are when you deliver bad news is they way they will be. If you appear anxious, uncertain or fearful, athletes will match your behaviour in kind. If your alarm systems kick in, so will theirs and things only get worse from there.

If you act like ‘yep look this is not ideal, but I think we’re going to be fine’ athletes respond much more predictably than otherwise. Treating staff like capable adults more often than not sees them acting that way.

3: Use the STATE framework.

In their book ‘Crucial Conversations, social scientists Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler formalised what they call the STATE my path framework.

This simple tool is handy for guiding the sequence and content of conversations where stakes are high, emotions run hot and opinions can vary.

Of course the book presents all the science behind this model, but we don’t need to know how electricity works in order to enjoy its benefits, so here it is.

Here is an example of the STATE my path framework in action:

 Share your facts – tell athletes what information you think is relevant to your conclusion.

‘Tom I noticed you’ve left work quite early on three occasions over the last two weeks. You also turned up late to the last Friday’.

Tell Your Story – talk them through how you came to your conclusion

‘This makes me think you might not be as committed  as others, so I am considering having to performance manage you’.

 Ask for Others Paths – Check to see if your facts are correct, or they see it differently?

‘Tell me if there anything I am missing here? Are my facts correct?’.

 Talk tentatively – avoid being overbearing or overconfident in your assertions

‘I do know you have plenty on your plate right now with exams coming up’.

 Encourage Testing – Check again to see if your conclusion is reasonable.

‘So please let me know if there is more to the story than I am seeing. I am here to help’.

Conclusions For Leaders

Of course things aren’t always going to go swimmingly, sometimes people lose their heads no mater how careful and conscious you are of your communication. However if you keep your cool and don’t get pulled in to their emotional whirlwind, most people calm down with time. It is important to remember you are not responsible for how others choose to act, you can only set the stage.

We don’t have to choose between being honest and being liked. When we are comfortable having the crucial conversations we actually foster stronger bonds, because we get to deeper levels of understanding through these interactions.

If we can learn to manage our own emotions we are much more effective at helping others manage theirs. This can help us build better relationships with staff, relationships that are based just as much on honesty and transparency as camaraderie.