Whether you are announcing exciting new changes within your organization or terminating an employee, these conversations can be difficult. Sometimes they are exciting for you but potentially scary for employees, like major company or staffing changes. Sometimes, like terminations and layoffs, there is simply no good news to counter the bad news. While you can’t make everyone happy or make bad news happy, as a leader, you can handle tough conversations from a position of strong, capable leadership and make these conversations as easy and smooth as possible. What can you do to make your tough conversations go better for everyone involved?
Be honest and be direct. Sugar coating or stepping around the elephant in the room doesn’t help anyone. Get to the point, be honest, be direct and wherever possible, be kind. Of course, some truths or information cannot be shared but do your best to be direct about what is happening and why. People recover from change better if they at least understand it.
Don’t read from a script but it’s a good idea to collect your thoughts beforehand. Use a few bullet points if you need them. Practice if it helps you. With tough or weighty conversations, preparation is key. Not only does it help you make sure you touch on important points, it can reduce your discomfort by helping you feel ready to present information and answer questions with at least some amount of ease.
Be clear and provide enough information. This can be hard because when you know the details, it can be easy to think you have fully communicated when perhaps you have left out important information that might provide much needed context. Make sure you customize your conversation to the intended recipient and you give them the details that are meaningful to them.
Don’t let small stumbles throw you off course. There are very few people who relish tough conversations so if you trip over your words or misstep, just correct yourself if you need to and keep moving. Our mistakes or misspeaks are more noticeable to us than anyone else.
Put yourself in your listener’s shoes. If you are changing someone’s work life in a meaningful way, understand that whether it is positive or negative, news takes time to adjust to. Don’t get bent out of shape or defensive if you announce exciting news to your team only to see a sea of unsure expressions and trepidation. You likely have had a while to warm to changes, you team may not.
If it’s difficult news, deal with your feelings somewhere else. Listen, it’s hard to lay off an employee, terminate an employee or explain a restructuring plan to a room full of employees, only some of which will ultimately have a job, losing a key piece of business or whatever your bad news is. Being a leader doesn’t mean you don’t have feelings, just that you don’t burden the people you lead with them. So keep the “I feel so bad about this” and “I wish I didn’t have to do this” “this is so hard for me” for your spouse, business partner or therapist. No one getting bad news really cares how you feel.
Be kind and compassionate where possible. Of course not every situation calls for it but wherever you can, be a human being who cares about people. It doesn’t mean you have to help them or feel sorry for them, but wherever possible, be nice. Tough conversations are not pleasant, but compassion can help you deliver bad news as fair and kindly as possible. Keep in mind people remember how you made them feel and it’s a small world.
If it doesn’t go so great, don’t beat yourself up. Review what worked, what didn’t and adjust course accordingly.