It’s going to happen, if it hasn’t already. You will have to deliver upsetting information or address a serious client or staff issue. Not too many people look forward to these conversations. I remember the dread in the pit of my stomach I felt when I knew a difficult conversation was coming and how I looked for easy fixes to soften the blow. Alas, these easy fixes, did little to ease my stress and they did even less to achieve what was needed from these difficult conversations. I wanted to be a leader, an entrepreneur, and respected by my peers, but I struggled to master this difficult skill. For me, I solved this problem first in smaller settings in my personal life and then took those new skills I learned into the workplace, but we will get into that story in a bit.
For an entrepreneurial individual, the sooner you recognize the opportunity that lies within these types of conversations, the quicker you will be able to convey value to your clients, supervisors and peers. There are a couple of ways to face the challenge of a difficult conversation. This article will focus understanding the dynamics of a challenging conversation and introduce the idea of creating a habit for those challenging, but possibly routine conversations. No conversation is exactly same, but you will realize that there are many you can anticipate coming - a billing question, the need to ask for help, or how to say no when a request is not something you are able or willing to perform.
One of the biggest hallmarks of a true professional is the willingness to have difficult conversations through productive, respectful communication. It is not easy, safe, or comfortable to deliver bad news, but this is all part of life and we need to learn this skill.
Whether your conversation centers around disappointing or unexpected results, admitting failure or addressing client concerns, they all seem to start with the pit in your stomach. What type of leader and person you are and will be depends on how you respond to that pit of your stomach. Let it consume you and you will turn into that person no one wants to interact with. But if you can learn how to handle even the most difficult situation, you will be the person everyone respects.
Handling difficult conversations, though, from either the giving or receiving end, is the pathway to better relationships. As hard as it is to say something that others need to hear, or to accept your role in a problem if you do so, with grace and resilience, trust is built, even if the message is painful. The significant emotional event can be the glue, or name brand modeling clay from my last post that creates loyalty.
Two Sides of a Difficult Conversation
Understanding difficult conversations and how to approach them often differs depending on which side of the conversation you are on. There are times in our personal and professional lives where we are the ones that must initiate a difficult conversation. We have to tell someone their performance isn’t up to par, that their bill will be higher than expected, or that our deliverable will not be there on time. The other side of this conversation is when we are on the receiving end of these messages. Both situations are difficult, uncomfortable and cause their share of angst on both parties.
Initiating or receiving a hard truth conversation sometimes feels like an attack or insult to the receiving party. The intent of these conversations should never be either one. The intent should be to clear a misunderstanding, correct an issue, identify and solve a problem or some other productive action. These moments should be carrying seeds of truth, trust, and good intentions.
Think about this: Have you ever left the table of a lunch meeting to stop in the restroom, only to realize at the sink that you have been sitting at the table, quite possibly for the better part of an hour, with food between your teeth? What was your first thought? Likely, it was why didn’t they tell me? Now, flip that. Have you ever been the person in the other seat? Did you debate with yourself if you should say something? Did you?
How about this scenario? A colleague always has their cell phone out in meetings - small and large, webinar, in person, committee, training. You know they mean no harm and are listening to the conversations around them, but you can see that senior management is less than thrilled with the image it projects and that younger staff notice and sometimes emulate this manager. You are their peer. What would you do? How would you feel if you were them and you had a peer that knew you were causing damage to the perception of your professionalism and didn’t tell you? How would you feel about starting this conversation?
In our careers we will be called, compelled, and even directed to have difficult conversations. Approaching them from a sincere helping perspective is way to frame these conversations and structure them to deliver an undiluted but constructive message.
Remember that each individual brings with them their whole history to every conversation. Often what comes across as angry and aggressive is actually anxiety and frustration.
Plan the Appropriate Opening or Response
Difficult conversations that don’t go well tend to happen at the wrong time, in the heat of a moment, with only one perspective in mind. In our deadline driven industry, as professionals we can be stressed, tired, or hungry because we haven’t taken the time to care for ourselves or we think we can stop when tax season, audit season, extended season - pick as season - is over. Research study after research study shows that performance, communication, and living in alignment with our values suffers when any of our basic needs are not met.
In their book, Spark, Angie Morgan, Courtney Lynch, and Sean Lynch of Lead Star discuss that their best advice to those who lead or wish to lead is, “... be prepared for these situations so that you know how to manage them or even avoid them altogether.”
A big challenge for any professional is simply knowing the right response in the heat of the moment. And sometimes, the best response is none at all, at first. Taking time away from a stressful, powder keg situation to give yourself some perspective is often a good idea.
Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, highlights Starbucks and their system for handling customer complaints. One of the most powerful tools that is provided to employees is not just the system for dealing with complaints, but the opportunity to identify potentially stressful conversations before they happen and plan an appropriate response. Then, those trainees practice those responses, until they become habits and automatic.
“This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behavior
ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives”
Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit
Systems, routines, and techniques are my way to deal with the activities of daily living, particularly those that stress me out! Here’s that story I promised:
I am a people-pleaser, which has its good points and its drawbacks.
I have always hated it when people came door-to-door selling items (not you Girls Scouts or Boy Scouts!) or I received telemarketing calls. I never knew how to shut it down without feeling rude or impolite. I finally figured out that I needed a policy (a habit for responding to a predictable situation), like I had a work for any number of situations.
So, I decided that I now had a policy of not purchasing anything over the phone or door-to-door. Kinda of silly, right? Then I took it one step further. I wrote a script. I gave myself the words I needed, while I was away from the actual situation, so when it was time, I could literally go to my script.
The conversation became easier for me because I didn’t have to think, the response was ready for me. I simply said “Thank you, but we have a policy of not buying over the phone or door-to-door.” Seems a little simplistic. But to me, it gave me something to stand on, and then I was better able to recognize those that pushed or clearly did not respect my answer. It gave me permission to shut them down, without feeling rude.
While this isn’t exactly what we are facing day to day in our work life, it was stepping stone to examining other conversations and learning how to work with my own style to address a challenge. I found when facing challenges at work that I needed to break the situation down in order to really take it apart and look it at from a variety of perspectives. A few items worthy of closer examination follow below.
Consider How the Other Person May Feel
Always consider that often the response to your message is just that, a response to the message, not you as a person. Keep in mind when having difficult conversations that the recipient of your message is going through their own set of emotions.
Our industry deals with one of the most stress-inducing topics - one that causes marriages, businesses, and families to fall apart - money. Actions outside of your control can be driving their responses. What other issues is that client or staff facing? Are they a naturally anxious person? Are they someone that likes to be in control? Are there personal relationship or family issues that may be driving their stress?
Emotions that run high in these conversations may not have anything to do with the messages themselves but with the parties involved and their own history and state of mind related to the situation and words that are used.
If possible, bad news should be delivered face to face, or at least voice to voice via telephone. Listen to what they are saying. Are they using words like, “worried”, “fear”, “anxious” or “nervous”, “frustrated”? Be empathetic when they respond to your message, but also confident (because you practiced!) that you can help address the issue at hand.
It is important to be empathetic in these conversations. It is also important to be sure that the message is clear. One of the most common outcomes of a hard truth conversation is that each party walks away with a completely different understanding of the bottom line.
Don’t sugarcoat your message, and make sure that you completely understand the message from the other party if you are on the receiving end of one of these moments. Sometimes, you just need to listen. Sometimes you need to let them know you hear what they are saying, reflect it back and if you don’t have an answer, you will find one.
Make a Plan
Now here’s your homework. Dream up scenarios where you are the one to initiate a difficult conversation. Consider a discussion you could have with a subordinate, peer and supervisor. What does that look like? What could happen? What could you say?
How would you react if you were in the other seat for those conversations? What could you do to keep the ultimate goal of helping in mind?
What can you do now, before the conversations ever happen to ensure you are prepared to handle them as professionally, appropriately, and productively as possible?
In my next article I will give you a structure to follow for these conversations and some example scripts to use when building your own library of difficult conversation guides.
What do you wish others would understand when having a difficult conversation? We want to hear how you handle challenging conversations and get you started on your path as an Entrepreneurial CPA and to creating opportunity from challenges. Click here to book a time to chat with one of our Entrepreneurial CPAs.
Erin Kidd is an Enrolled Agent, Accredited Financial Counselor ®, and has her Master’s Degree in Business Administration. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Linkedin as @taxladyErin. She’d love to connect to talk about financial literacy, taxes, entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship and stuff that makes us laugh!