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Difficult, Hard-truth Conversations Part II - A Difficult Conversatio

In my earlier article about difficult conversations we examined components of those conversations. Giving perspective to both sides of the table and the understanding that often the 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.

I promised to give you a structure that will help you build your own scripts and anticipate difficult conversations you may have. I am also going to provide some sample scripts that you can tweak for your own use. Tweet at me if you have some samples of your own.

The AUDIT Structure to Guide Your Conversations

Over time, I have developed a structure to handling difficult conversations or even responding to a terse email. I use what I call the AUDIT Technique. I’ve told you before I am a people pleaser. While that is not a totally bad thing since we are in a service industry, it serves no one if I cannot have frank conversations and deliver needed news, even it is painful. My prior post mentioned that I have built a structure for handling these situations. Here is that technique that will have you well on your way to mastering the difficult conversation and will keep you from becoming consumed by that pit in your stomach.

Have your list of challenging conversation situations handy from the last post. Here’s how to start fleshing out a response.

A - Acknowledge

The first step in an unpleasant conversation is to acknowledge the issue. A few key phrases that work for me are "I hear you are upset about...." or "This is difficult for me to say..." Most people struggle with the fact they want others to like them and sometimes that gets in the way of their own best interests or offering true value in feedback, handling client issues or building relationships. Touchy conversations are opportunities to get real and have a deeper, meaningful discourse with others.

U - Understand

Seek to understand. What are you, - the client, your boss, your spouse, your friends - whomever, really upset about? Anger is rarely the actual underlying issue; it is a symptom of other emotions. Anxiety and frustration are the ones that often hang out with anger. Has there been a change in routine, did a fee suddenly increase, were issues beforehand not properly communicated? Find out what the problem really is and you will be on a path for resolution.

D - Determine

Determine what can be done to solve the problem? Use these conversations to learn more. What expectations does your client or boss have? Has your employee been counseled on the expectations you have for their performance? Does an employee need more tools or mentorship? Does the client need a detailed breakdown of the work involved in their job? Can the issue be elevated to a higher level and be resolved there? Don't just use these conversations as a one-way street - either to lecture or to be berated. The goal should be to find a solution. When in doubt, ask. What does the other party want?

I - Inform

Let the other party know what you are going to do about the issue. Outline the next steps to address the concerns that have been raised. Have each party be responsible for something. For example, if a client raises a billing issue, you can detail the work that occurs in the job, offer to elevate it up the chain if you can't resolve it and/or provide information on the value of the service that has been provided. The client should offer feedback on their expectations, their understanding of what the work entails, and what would be a satisfactory resolution. Answers to these questions will help build a solution that is palatable to everyone.

T - Thank

Always, always thank someone for bringing an issue to your attention or for working through a difficult conversation with you. Even if there is no happily ever after, it is vital that each person know they are valued, important, have been heard. A few more phrases that help me, "Thank you for bringing this issue to our attention." "I appreciate your time and attention. I know these conversations are not easy." Don't ruin the acknowledgement or an apology with a "BUT" or a “HOWEVER”. Start a new sentence, phrase it a different way, see if the sentence works just as well with an AND instead of a BUT. "I know these conversations aren't easy AND it can be a demanding process to find the best result."

Practice, Practice, Practice

Take out your homework from the last post or take a few minutes now to jot down your three most stressful conversations. How would you react if those situations happened? What would you like to hear if you were on the other side of the conversation? Have you ever had this type of conversation before now? How did you handle it? Could it have been done in a better way?

Take a bit of time and write out a script for your responses in each situation. Create a draft on your computer or phone so you have it to customize when you need it. Find someone, your mentor, coach, supervisor, or peer and buddy up to work on these. See if your firm has something set up already as a response for specific topics.

Ask for help. Assess what is really going on. Don’t respond in haste or anger. Think of a few responses and discuss them with someone you trust if you aren’t sure the most appropriate response.

I use this technique for everything from client billing issues, talking to my children’s teachers, to psyching myself up to talk to someone I find intimidating. You will find if you are prepared, the situation proceeds much more smoothly.

Sample Scripts

I know I always find it helpful if someone shows me a sample and then I can tweak it for my own situations. Below are three scenarios to help you see the AUDIT technique in action and give you an idea of how to structure a your script for a difficult conversation or written communication.

Example 1: Informing client of high balance due on a tax return and the client is not used to this, usually best done in a phone call

Hi <client name>, this is <your name> from <your firm>. I am <calling, writing> to let you know that your tax return is <ready for pick up, through our quality control process, in the mail to you>. I did want to discuss your return with you if you have a few minutes. Once you receive it, if you would like to give me a call to go over specific items, we can do that as well. I do want to let you know that it does look like there is a large balance due this year. {Acknowledge} This might be a surprise or you may have a few questions so I wanted to be sure to reach out to discuss it with you rather than having it surprise you when you receive your return. {Understand} I want to be sure I address any questions you have, so please let me know if any come up. <Explain key points impacting tax return> {Determine} <Tell them what can be done to prevent this in the future> We will be happy to work with you to plan for future transactions or discuss with your broker some strategies to use to reduce the tax impact of rebalancing your portfolio. {Inform} I will be sure to let the partner in charge on your account know that we discussed your return and your concerns for future activities. Would you like us to reach out in November for fourth quarter planning to anticipate any surprises for the coming tax year? {Thank} Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. Please let me know if there are any questions I can answer for you.

Example 2: Staff coming in later and leaving earlier than is typically accepted and they express there is no underlying reason, should be done in person and in private and any conversation documented

<Staff Name> Is everything okay? I noticed you’ve been coming in later and leaving earlier than usual. {Acknowledge} Sometimes life gets in the way and I wanted to see if there is anything I can do to assist you. <Here they may say nothing is wrong or they may share an issue that has come up in their lives. If they say nothing then you have the need to express that the firm’s core hours are a particular time, etc., and the expectations are XYZ. If they share there is an issue you can offer to help or see if there is a way to help them.> {Understand} OK, I am glad to hear there isn’t anything wrong. I know there can be some confusion. So to confirm, do you know our firm’s core hours are <hours> and what we mean by that? <Explain if they don’t know the proper expectation, reconfirm if they do explain it properly.> {Determine} We want to see you be successful and one of the small ways to do that is to be on time and in the office during the expected times. The perception when people leave early or come into the office late on a consistent basis is that they are not pulling their weight. Is there anything I do to help you meet the core hour expectation? <Maybe they give you an idea, maybe they acknowledge they need to set their alarm, or maybe the explain what is going on.> {Inform} <Confirm you will do what they asked to help if possible or confirm what each of you will do next.> Great, <Staff Name> It sounds like we have a plan OR I will follow up with you in a few weeks and we can discuss how your new plan is going. I know you want to be successful, so as difficult as these conversations can be, I wanted to be sure to let you know when I saw something that could turn into an issue. {Thank} Thanks for taking a few minutes to talk with me. I appreciate your time and please let me know if you have any questions on this or any other firm policies in the future.

Example 3: You are called into the managing partner’s office, ultimately to discuss your billable/nonbillable hours.

{Acknowledge} I received your email that you wanted to discuss something with me.<This should be when they broach the subject. You should listen, take notes if necessary, both to be sure you capture the information and to help yourself stay in control of your emotions by distracting them with activity. {Understand} I hear that you are concerned that my billable hours will be short of my goal for the year. It sounds like you want to understand what I have been doing with my time and how I can increase my utilization. Is that correct? <Here they should confirm your understanding or clarify what what they mean. Repeat the Understand step until you both are on the same page. {Determine} <Share your insights on your current workload, express what you see as opportunities to contribute to the firm’s bottom line, ask for clarity on any nonbillable work you may be doing that is to the firm’s benefit.> I see the concern with my time. I have been working on processes for new technology, however I believe there is opportunity for me to assist with <other types of billable work>. I have also been working on CPE in the <specialty area>. Would it be possible to work with <firm leader in the specialty> on these types of projects? <You all should come up with few possibilities> {Inform} Alright, so I will reach out to <specialist> to see what projects I can help with, as well as delegate some of my nonbillable tasks as appropriate to help increase my billable time. <Include whatever other course of action that was recommended or agreed to in this section.> {Thank} Thank you for your time and insights. I will work on improving this area.

Obviously, not every conversation is going to follow a script exactly, but you can see how giving yourself time to consider various difficult conversations ahead of time will help prepare you for those moments. Luck is when preparation meets opportunity. Difficult conversations that resolve issues can be the significant emotional event that bonds clients and service providers, peer relationships, or entire teams - from leaders to new staff.

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! A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn. It has been updated for C3 Evolution Group Entrepreneurial CPA blog.

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