Stella Smith: Managing difficult conversations

The sector should stop wasting time measuring and planning if it's not prepared to deliver the change, writes our online columnist

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

A few years ago, as I was about to launch into a comprehensive evaluation of services for a major charity, a senior manager pulled me aside and said: "Don’t waste your time - the question isn’t which services are underperforming. We all know that. The question is who has got the guts to deal with it."

Since then the sector seems to have become obsessed with evaluation and analysis, with an apparently unsatiable appetite for planning and impact assessment events. We have become experts at evaluating the present and listing out what we should do. But these approaches are not delivering the benefits they should because we still don’t have the skills to translate the findings into operational practice. All the impact assessment in the world comes to nothing if you don’t take action as a result.

We have to accept that improving our effectiveness means change. It can mean that really nice people have to retrain in very different areas of work and face some challenges in doing so. It can mean people who have worked together for years are relocated. It can mean honest, hard-working people have to face redundancy. And it can mean people with extensive personal power but poor performance are brought to account.  

Delivering the difficult messages that these changes require isn’t easy and organisations employ all sorts of avoidance techniques. Consultants are hired to say what everybody knows but dare not speak.  Departments, or even whole organisations, are restructured to manufacture a redundancy for one poor performer who nobody wants to manage. Or, perhaps most commonly, a manager will communicate an unpopular message verbally but use a roll of the eyes, a shrug of the shoulders and a knowing nod to abdicate responsibility - and in doing so maintain the comfortable myth that we can implement change without really doing anything differently.

There could be a hundred and one reasons why we still opt out of delivering difficult messages: maybe we want to be liked, maybe we feel our staff and volunteers work so hard in difficult conditions it’s unfair on them; maybe we are planning to leave the organisaton anyway. Whatever the reason, though, when we tiptoe around and don’t manage difficult conversations effectively, the received message is confused and can end up doing more harm than good.

So let’s not waste our time measuring and planning if we’re not prepared to deliver the change. Here’s my advice for preparing for those essential difficult conversations: 

1 –  Prepare, prepare, prepare

Go into the meeting well prepared. Have a comprehensive understanding of how the situation has come about and the sequence of events leading to this conversation. Consider carefully what you want the other person to know and understand by the end of the meeting.

2 – Deliver at an appropriate place and time

Where and when you deliver the message will have an impact on how it is received. So depending on the outcome that you want, consider whether this is a one-to-one conversation in a private meeting room at 9am on a Monday, or an announcement to the team at 3pm midweek. 

3 – Listen

Sometimes, when under stress and anxious to deliver a difficult message, people talk and talk without drawing breath. Go slowly, listen to others and consider the impact on them. 

4 – Make notes of the meeting and circulate to relevant people

If the changes have potential significant impact for people’s jobs, make notes of what was said and circulate to attendees after the meeting. 

5 – Watch your non-verbal communication

Make sure your tone of voice, gestures and facial expressions all reinforce the message you want to communicate.

Stella Smith is a strategy consultant working with not-for-profit organisations in the areas of governance, strategy and change management

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