Whether you’re delivering a difficult message, giving tough performance feedback, or confronting insensitive behavior, handling a challenging conversation can strike fear and trepidation in the heart of a leader. If handled with skill and care, these situations are prime opportunities for leaders to build trust with those they lead.
The SPEAK model is a helpful tool to navigate challenging conversations.
S – State your concerns directly. Speak in private and face-to-face whenever possible and use “I” language to voice your concerns, thoughts, and feelings about the situation. A common myth about handling challenging conversations is that you should be objective and only stick to the facts. While you certainly want to be factual, you also need to share your feelings, without blame, so the other party understands the impact of the situation. Don’t make sarcastic or belittling remarks and be sure to share the consequences if the issue isn’t resolved. How it sounds: “Since we missed our deadline, I’m concerned that we may not meet our project goals.”
P – Probe for information to gain deeper understanding. Talk with an open and interested tone of voice and use open-ended questions to probe for more information to help you understand behavior that may seem incomprehensible. Pause long enough to give the person time to respond and listen with the intent to understand and be influenced by her point of view. How it sounds: “I’m confused about why we missed the deadline. Can you tell me more about what you thought our agreements were?”
E – Engage each other through whole-hearted listening. Be mentally present and intentional about listening. When people feel fully heard, they are more open to creative solutions, alternatives can be explored, wounds healed, and defensiveness lowered. Paraphrase to make sure you’ve heard and understood correctly and be sure to reflect the person’s feelings and values. How it sounds: “So you are saying that when I spoke with you about your performance that I was not clear about your goals and responsibilities?”
A – Attend to body language. Make sure that your body language matches your words. Sometimes leaders force themselves to be too relaxed when the situation is actually quite serious and that sends confusing signals to the other person. Pay attention to the other person’s body language and challenge inconsistent verbal and non-verbal messages with “I” statements. How it sounds: “I’m confused. I hear you saying that you think we don’t have a problem, yet I notice you sitting in a way that I’m interpreting as being angry.”
K – Keep forward-focused when possible. Once past issues have been addressed and the air cleared, focus the conversation on what each of you are going to do moving forward. Ask directly if the other person is ready to move forward, and if she isn’t, return to step E to explore any other issues or concerns that may be unresolved. How it sounds: “From my perspective, we have cleared up past misunderstandings. I am ready to move forward if you are. Is there anything on your end that we have not addressed yet?”
Working through difficult situations is an opportunity for leaders to build trust. It’s during these times that followers can feel most vulnerable to leaders because of the disparity of power in the relationship. Leaders who use their power in the service of others by demonstrating care and concern in handling challenging conversations will increase engagement, commitment, and trust with those they lead.