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McDonell Consulting Group, LLC | Baltimore & Bel Air, MD

Tense and difficult conversations. No one really enjoys having them, but as a leader, oftentimes they are necessary to keep your organization and team healthy. Being able to initiate and guide a volatile conversation is a leadership skill that many should practice more often. When you learn to facilitate a discussion where one or more parties are angry or upset, or where there is discomfort, or where blame is being doled out, and you are able to have all parties feel that they have been heard and understood – you are defusing a tense conversation. So – what are some steps you can take to become a more effective communicator and leader? Here are three:

1. Acknowledge the Situation

The first step is to have the conversation without delay. I love the phrase “What you ignore becomes more” because there is so much truth to that. When you become aware that someone on your team is upset, or that their behavior has changed in a detrimental way – address it. Don’t wait for them to bring it up. Schedule time with that person to have the conversation and acknowledge the situation and their feelings – in private. When you meet with them, you want to acknowledge what you have observed, or has been brought to your attention. You want to ask why the situation or behavior is happening. And you want to let them speak without interrupting. I like to start all formal conversations with an upfront contract, where I identify how long I have set aside for our meeting, the reason for meeting, and what the desired outcome is. I use the phrase “I need your help…” to get things started. It might sound like this: “Thanks for meeting with me, Terry. I blocked 30 minutes on both of our calendars to discuss something that I need your help with. I’ve noticed that you aren’t making any prospecting calls lately. Can you help me understand why so that we can decide how to address this?” And that leads us to our second step…

2. Listen to Understand, Not to Reply

After setting your upfront contract and stating your observations – shut up and listen. It may take a while for the other person to answer – that is okay. Your job as a leader is to address the issue head-on, create an opportunity for the team member to explain themselves, and then figure out what needs to be done. You can do this with compassion and empathy, but until you listen to what they say – you will not know if compassion and empathy are even warranted. There may be some personal issues that are impacting their behavior, attitude and performance. Or it may be that they have a lack of interest in their role or in the company. Or it may be that they don’t have the necessary skills or authority to do what needs to be done, and they didn’t know how to address it. All of those reasons will require different responses from you – and unless you allow your employee the space and time they need to clarify why they are behaving in a way that is inconsistent with your expectations, you will not be able to solve the problem on your team. And don’t just listen to their words. Listen to the tonality and watch their body language – are they showing signs of defensiveness? Engagement? Fear? Apathy? Frustration? Eagerness to please? Use what you observe for follow up questions. Great communication relies on the whole of the message – words, tonality, and body language – so don’t ignore what is unspoken in favor of what is stated. Keep in mind, you may need to deal with the emotions first to get to the intellectual. In other words, your employee may be reacting emotionally to avoid dealing with something intellectually. Keep using follow up questions to get to the “why?” of their behavior. If you are familiar with DISC, knowing your personal style of communication and being able to quickly identify someone else’s style and adjusting to them, can help greatly with effective communication as well.

3. Don’t Try to Win – Try to Resolve

Once you’ve actively listened, asked good follow up questions, and identified the cause of the problem, it’s time to resolve the issue - without making it personal. Having heard what you’ve heard (and observed) – what is the end goal now? Has this problem been addressed simply by acknowledging the issue, listening to the employee, and creating a sense of understanding? Does a follow-up conversation need to be scheduled for further discussion and clarity? Does an action plan need to be implemented? Do other people need to be addressed or become involved? Is there missing information that needs to be gathered? Before ending the meeting with your team member, you need to summarize the conversation and clearly state what the next steps are for you and for them, and when the completion dates are. If possible – schedule the next steps on your calendars right then. Otherwise, clarify your expectations, what the employee has committed to changing to resolve the issue going forward, and what will happen if changes do not occur.

Every crisis starts with a conflict. As leaders, we need to be aware of conflicts within our organizations. Some are apparent, and some are buried under the surface. We need to be more proactive in looking for the uncomfortable conversations because the silence can be a false mask for what is actually happening within our companies. We should be asking ourselves and our team leaders: what are some things that people are not talking about, that they should be? And then we should listen.

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