Whether it's with investors, customers or employees, tough conversations in business are inevitable. Learning to handle these conversations well can often make or break a business, so here are some ways to tackle those hard moments whenever they come along.
I would love to be able to tell you that as soon as you hang out your shingle or put your product on the market, everything will go smooth as silk. But I can't lie to you — it probably isn't going to happen.
When everything hits the fan, you're often forced to have some difficult conversations, whether it's with investors, employees or customers. Learning to handle these conversations well can often make or break a business so it's a skill worth paying attention to.
I don't know about you, but confrontation is not my strong suit and it's not my favorite thing to do. But I've learned some keys that help me when those inevitable uncomfortable conversations have to happen.
When you avoid having a tough conversation that you need to have, the situation just festers — and often spreads. Whether it's an employee who needs to be fired or an investor who needs to hear some bad news, better to get it done quickly, like ripping off a Band-Aid. If you procrastinate, you'll just waste your time and energy agonizing over it.
That said, do not go into a difficult interaction while you're still reacting and hyper-emotional. If you're still angry or panicked about the situation, give yourself time to get calm and centered. Take the emotion out of it so you have a better chance of communicating clearly and finding solutions. Don't let your emotional reactions add more stress to the problem in front of you. This is especially important if your "conversation" will be in writing. An email or letter or text sent in anger never turns out well.
Don't ignore the problem
A friend of mine had a boss who used to say, "If you ignore it, odds are that it will go away." He was wrong most of the time. Your customers and clients will trust you so much more if you let them know the ugly truth: The opposing side reneged on their settlement agreement. Their daughter didn't get the lead in the dance recital. The product they ordered won't come in until next year. The construction costs came in at twice their budget. Just pick up the phone and tell them what's going on. If they're mad or upset, deal with it. Be calm and empathetic. Then, if you need to, talk them off the cliff. Even if you don't have a brilliant solution for the difficulty, they deserve to know where they stand.
This is doubly true for issues with employees. If you're not happy with their work but don't let them know, there's no way they can fix it. Don't tippy toe around the issue. Let them know what's not working so they have a chance of succeeding with you.
Say what really needs to be said
Before you enter a tough conversation, take a few moments to think about what's really important to say and what isn't. Start by thinking about your ultimate goal for the conversation. Do you want an employee or a contractor to make some changes? Are you trying to maintain the trust and relationship of your client? What do you really need to say to reach that goal?
Let's say you're disappointed by a contractor's performance. You should bring up a few concrete examples of what isn't working so they are clear about it, but you don't need to mention every tiny gripe you have about them. Or let's say you can't complete a client's assignment on time. They don't need to know every detail of your very busy workload. They just need to know that a) you'll miss the deadline, b) when you will be able to meet your commitment and c) what you're doing to make sure it doesn't happen again.
The "sandwich conversation" is a communication technique that helps relieve some of the tension and defensiveness that comes up in tough conversations. It lets the other person know that you are not there to go to war but to find solutions. In a sandwich conversation, you sandwich the difficult message in between two more positive statements. For example, if you have an employee who shows up for work late, it might go something like: "Hey, I'm really impressed with the job you're doing for our marketing campaign. One thing I'd really appreciate from you is to show up on time for our weekly meetings. That way, you won't miss anything that we cover, and we'll be able to finish our meetings sooner."
Another example: What if a client isn't following through on documents they're supposed to give you or "homework" you assign? "I'm really eager to work with you and I believe in your project. And I'd really appreciate it if you could get me the XYZ we agreed to. That way, I'll be able to offer you the quality you deserve from me."
Always be respectful
The person you're firing may not have done a good job, but it's unlikely that they screwed up intentionally. The customer reading you the riot act about a defective product they received might have other pressures that are grinding at them. You just don't know. Treat the other person as you would wish to be treated if roles were reversed.
Part of respect is listening to the other person's point of view. This means listening to understand, not listening so you can argue your point. When someone feels respected and that they've been heard, they're much more likely to show you respect and listen in return. It sets a tone that leads to finding solutions, rather than adding fuel to the fire. Even if you end up parting ways, by staying respectful, you haven't burned any bridges you might need in the future.
By facing those difficult conversations in a timely way, saying only what really needs to be said, staying respectful and sandwiching, you'll find that your difficult conversations are not only less difficult, they'll also turn out to be much more productive.
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