C-Suite Advisory

How To Have Difficult Conversations With Those You Manage

Wendy Born

Being an inspirational leader means that from time to time you need to have difficult conversations.  Whether you need to tell someone that they didn’t achieve a high enough rating in their end of year performance assessment, or you may need to convey to someone that they were unsuccessful in securing the role they applied for.  Or perhaps you need to call someone on their poor or inappropriate behaviour. Regardless of the type, they all need a level of courage on your part to do.

Courage is something that we all have, yet sometimes struggle to show to the world. Often, we surprise ourselves when courage turns up. We reflect on it afterwards as something completely unexpected that we didn’t realise we had!

To our brain, courage happens in response to a real or perceived threat.  In this case it may be that we expect the person we are having the conversation with to get upset, or perhaps yell at us, or worse case become violent.  When we experience this threat or fear, we have a neurological reaction, stemming from pre-historic times when our sole purpose was to try and stay alive and not be eaten by other animals.

Our amygdala, the little almond-shaped section of nervous tissue that sits in the limbic part of our brains responsible for our emotions, instincts and memory, goes into overdrive creating a chemical cocktail of adrenaline and cortisol. This triggers the fight, flight or freeze action required to keep us alive. When this happens, the cerebral or pre-frontal cortex part of our brain, which is responsible for our sensible, rational thinking, shuts down and we are unable to think straight. That’s why our mind sometimes goes blank, or three hours later when you have calmed down that you can think of a million smart, witty things to say.  Physically you may break into a sweat, your breathing becomes shallow and your heartbeat races.

It doesn’t matter if someone comes at us with a knife or someone says something nasty to us, we have the same neurological reaction. This is why we don’t like to be courageous, and will often avoid difficult conversations at all costs.

So how then can we ease the discomfort of having a difficult conversation and keep our brains engaged and our bodies calm?

Remember to breathe.

Being aware of your physiological reaction right before you need to have a difficult conversation will help you to better manage your response.  Navy SEALs use a 4X4 method of deep breathing while they are in conflict to manage their response. This involves breathing in through your nose for a count of four and then breathing out through your mouth for a count of four. Do this three times immediately before your conversation or when needed throughout. It will help you to re-engage your pre-frontal cortex and respond more rationally and calmly.

Structure your conversation

In her book Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott sets out a structure for having difficult conversations which helps to plan the words you will use.

  1. Name the issue/situation/behaviour that has occurred
  2. Describe how you feel about this
  3. Explain the consequences of the issue/situation/behaviour
  4. Why is this important?
  5. Share the contribution or take accountability for your part in the issue/situation/behaviour.  For example, “you may have overlooked this in the past”, or “you could have raised it earlier”, or perhaps “you could have become involved sooner”.
  6. State your wish to resolve the issue
  7. Ask for a response.

Plan and practice

It is important that you plan out what you are going to say and practice saying it.  The more practice you have the easier you will find saying what you need to. You can also plan for what responses you may receive so that you can develop an appropriate reply.  By practicing being courageous, when the situation occurs you’ll be nervous or scared but you will definitely be better prepared.

By being courageous and facing in to difficult conversations you send a strong message to those around you that you are confident, in control and lead by example.  You also convey the standards you expect and that you will follow through on them. All great qualities of inspirational leaders.

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Wendy Born
Wendy Born helps leaders maximise their talent and strengths to achieve extraordinary results. As an engaging facilitator, coach and speaker, she works with executives, senior leaders and leadership teams to create high-performance organisations. Wendy Born is the author of Raising Leaders and The Languages of Leadership, both published by Major Street. Wendy Born is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow her on LinkedIn.