One of the certainties of managerial life is there will be occasions where you need to have a delicate conversation with someone. No matter if it’s an employee, colleague, or vendor, the thought of having a potentially challenging conversation with someone causes fear and hesitation. And of course this isn’t just an issue in the workplace; the same dynamic happens in our personal relationships as well.
I had a delicate conversation with my 21 year-old son last week, and frankly, I could have handled it better. If I had practiced what I’m preaching here, I’m pretty sure the discussion would have been more fruitful. Here’s the tips I should have followed more closely:
1. Clarify your motive and desired outcome for the conversation—In my case, I had been stewing over a discussion my son and I had a few weeks earlier. In that prior conversation, I felt my son had neglected to mention some important facts that I later discovered on my own. I felt he had been less that truthful with me and my motive was to let him know how I felt so I could get the weight off my chest. I thought I was clear on the motive, but looking back I see it was a pretty selfish one. A better motive would have been to learn more about why my son shared what he did rather than accuse him of purposefully omitting facts. I also wasn’t clear on my desired outcome. Was I looking for an apology? Did I want him to acknowledge he made a mistake? Since I wasn’t fully clear on the outcome, it left the conversation in a ragged state when we finished.
2. Pick the right time and place—This one is hard for me because I don’t like to leave things unsettled. I’d rather address an issue quickly and get it resolved, rather than wait for things to settle down and perhaps sort themselves out naturally. When planning for a delicate conversation, choose a location that will create a comfortable and safe environment for the meeting. Choose a time of day when the other party will be at their best, and havethe right kind of open energy that will allow them to hear what you’re saying.
3. Watch your tone—Studies have shown that just 7% of communication is the actual words we speak. That leaves 93% of communication happening through tone and body language. The tone of your voice will literally set the tone for the conversation. Use a tone that is warm, supportive, inquisitive, and non-judgmental. Raising your voice, having a sharp tongue, or using defensive or dismissive body language (e.g., crossing your arms, rolling your eyes) will doom your conversation for failure.
The health of our relationships is directly proportional to the quality of our conversations
4. Invite dialogue—Too often our delicate conversations turn into monologues. That’s because we feel more comfortable if we’re in control of the discussion. We can be afraid of what the other person may say or how she will steer the conversation, so we rattle on at the mouth until we’ve said our peace. The best way to handle a delicate conversation is to invite dialogue. Ask open-ended questions that allow the other person to express her thoughts and share openly. This builds a climate of trust and safety which facilitates more open and honest communication.
5. Express support and empathy—The delicate conversation with my son was a textbook example of what not to do. If you recall, in a prior conversation with my son I was upset he didn’t share certain details with me that I thought were relevant. After he explained why he omitted those facts, I relied upon my trust-building and leadership expertise and responded, “If you believe that, then you’re lying to yourself!” I don’t think I’ll be winning Dad of the Year award anytime soon. I missed my opportunity to empathize with him and express support for his point of view. Instead, I selfishly used the opening to blast him with a critical comment that I had been harboring for weeks. Even if your point of view is correct, a delicate conversation will go off the rails if you shut the other person down by not expressing empathy and support.
Conversation is the vehicle by which we build trust, lead others, and develop relationships. The health of our relationships is directly proportional to the quality of our conversations, so it’s important we develop effective communication skills. When it comes to discussing delicate topics, it’s important to be clear on our motives, choose the right time and place, watch our tone, invite dialogue, and express support and empathy.