Having Difficult Conversations

By: Julie Lancaster


In the beginning of each Leadership Academy, I ask every participant to do a self-assessment about their strengths and areas for growth.  One area of growth consistently rises to the top: having difficult conversations.  Participants say they want:

  • Comfort with speaking up assertively and early

  • To create a feedback culture

  • Buy in and changed behavior

We all know that “Feedback is the breakfast of champions”: thank you, Ken Blanchard. Books like Crucial Conversations, Difficult Conversations, and Fierce Conversations can give us much more elaborate guidance.  Here are the 5 strategies that I’ve seen provide the most return on investment for creating a culture that appreciates and implements corrective feedback.

1. Ask every employee to strategically reflect and plan their growth-trajectory.

We’ve seen how people are more open to feedback if they have self-identified their areas for growth, so here’s how to get it going. Creating a team with a “growth mindset”, coined by Carol Dweck, is a team that is dynamic and focuses on innovation and positive change.

Tell employees, “For our next meeting, come prepared with 2 lists for us to discuss:

  1. Personal strengths & areas for growth (aka “soft skills”)

  2. Technical strengths & areas for growth (aka “hard skills”)

Strengths: Qualities you possess that allow you to perform successfully. 

Areas for growth: Qualities you can hone to be even more successful at your job.

Make this a best practice for new employees within the first month. Ask “How can  I support you to work on your growth areas?”. Ask your team to revise these lists   quarterly and follow up on actions taken.

Marcus Buckingham suggests in First Break All the Rules to ask 3 questions at your follow up meetings:      

  • What actions have you taken?

  • What discoveries have you made? 

  • What partnerships have you built? 

 

2. Focus correction: the 5-to-1 feedback rule.

Dr. John Gottman, relationship researcher and guru, knows that we tend to focus on what’s not working.  Leaders’ jobs are to make the company stronger, reach higher and get more effective results. This is often done by identifying the  problems and fixing them.  Gottman encourages us to reset our sights: focus on  what’s working.  Said another way: don’t just seek to correct and fix, but focus on positive interactions.

For every 1 negative interaction there must be 5 positive interactions in each relationship.  This means that for every corrective feedback conversation you have, you must have 5 positive interactions where you focus on what the colleague is doing well. When you do this, you have a more motivated and engaged team that feels appreciated.  And appreciated people perform better.

3.From the top: ask for feedback.

To create a culture of feedback implementation, you must model it.

Question examples:

  • In which ways do I support your success at work?

  • How could I support you better? 

  • I would like feedback about my meeting facilitation, my communication style and how I develop the team. 

Model non-defensive receiving of feedback. Integrate what you think is appropriate and report back.  The more you do this, the more employees will trust this process and will share openly.

 

4.Prepare the conversation.

Write out these 5 steps for your upcoming conversation and practice aloud.

  • The “why.” -Get clear on the issue. What’s the cost of not bringing it up? Include this in your   introduction.

  • Specifics - What are the events and facts? Why is this a problem?

  • Dialogue - Invite their perspective and thoughts. Be curious.

  • Solutions - Don’t move too quickly to this step!  Once here, create solutions together, write them down and schedule a follow-up assessment. Don’t fall into the trap of just ending with “I’m so glad we’ve talked.”. Make the plan concrete.  How will you both measure changes?

  • Gratitude - This step strengthens the relationship and opens the door for future conversation. Thanking them for being the kind of person who you can speak honestly with and who is so committed to growth goes a long way. Also, express optimism about their ability to adapt.

 

5. Evaluate your tendency: too nice or too harsh?

When I ask my clients, “When you are your most stressed about a people issue, do you lean toward being aggressive or passive?”, they never say “Neither! I’m perfectly appropriate all the time!”. So, let’s talk about strategies for both sides.

Too nice:

65% of folks I work with fall into this category and their reasoning is often one of these:

a. It’s not that big of a deal.

b. I don’t know if I have enough evidence yet.

c. I don’t want to damage our relationship.

 A lack of corrective feedback breeds a culture where people aren’t held accountable for their actions.  One of the most empathic things you can do is coach someone about their behavior because you are helping them with necessary skills for their professional life.
 

Too harsh:

If you fall on the “too harsh” or “too direct” side, this usually means that your empathy around the issue is lacking.  When your empathy is lacking, you come off as uncaring and don’t inspire change. So, get really curious.  Seek to understand why they acted the way they did. You may think it sounds like excuses, but the reasons are important to understand. Then you can work better on solutions. Here’s what works for me: remember that we all have areas for growth, even me. I get to help them with theirs, but they will only be open to my help if they feel that I care about them and their success.

 

Headshot of Julie Lancaster

Julie Lancaster
Leadership Coach & Management Trainer
Lancaster Consulting

Decades ago, Julie got her start as a rock-climbing instructor.  Now Julie trains thousands of leaders each year through leadership academies, retreats, and coaching around the country. Learn more about the new online self-paced Women’s Leadership Academy filled with strategies for team success: www.LancasterLeadership.com

Email: julie@LancasterLeadership.com

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