The 4 D’s that can derail a difficult conversation

It ranks among the least appealing but most important management duties: conducting tough talks with employees. Bosses are required to hold people accountable, let them know what’s expected of them, and keep them informed — even when the news isn’t good.

Many managers tell me they wish they were better at handling difficult conversations. Their reasons for avoiding or bungling them can range from “I hate conflict and come on too soft” to “I have a short fuse and talk myself into trouble.”

Few managers get specialized training in this area, other than perhaps an HR primer on company policies and protocols. But a real, practical immersion in what works best in a variety of situations — that’s a rarity. Managers usually learn by trial and error. And error.

That’s why we focus on tough talks in our management programs, why I devote a full chapter to difficult conversations in my new book “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” and why we had a NewsU webinar this month that brought the book’s lessons to life.

It’s important to understand how easily a challenging conversation can be derailed — if a manager lets it happen (or even causes it to happen!) Here are the four “D’s” that can derail your conversation:

  • Denial: The other person rejects the information you’re putting forward, claims it is untrue, or completely shuts down.
  • Deflection: The other person changes the subject. “I can’t believe you’re telling me this. I can name three other people who are doing far worse things. And we have crummy computers. And no one every told me this before.”
  • Disruption: The other person shouts, swears, sobs, storms out — or all of the above.
  • Dumping on the boss: The other person declares it is your fault and tries to steer the conversation into criticism of you or the organization.

Are you prepared to deal with each of these derailments-in-waiting? Can you, in the moment, have the presence of mind to craft an appropriate response? Here are some tips to keep your talk on track:

  • To deal with denial: Preparation and specificity are key. Your goal isn’t to get the other person to cry “uncle,” it’s to get the facts you’ve confirmed on the table, along with a clear message about the next steps.
  • To deal with deflection: Don’t take the bait. Stay focused on the issue that brought you to this conversation. If you’re a debater, stifle your burning desire to respond to every off-topic utterance you hear.
  • To deal with disruption: Stay calm. Don’t be tempted to match the other person’s volume or vituperation. Stay rational in the face of irrationality or you will regret it later. Keep tissues (and compassion) handy for people who cry.
  • To deal with dumping on the boss: It isn’t about you. Let me repeat that: It isn’t about you. Take a cue from some recent research that says when we’re insulted or criticized, the best way to keep from getting aggressive ourselves is to “self-distance.” That means instead of digging in and focusing on the fightin’ words you just heard, you step back, almost like you’re watching from a balcony and witnessing some misguided person talking smack to a manager. With your angry impulses reduced, you can focus on moving the conversation back to your original goal.

I often suggest that managers role play a tough talk in advance with a trusted fellow manager, especially if there’s a high level of tension about that pending meeting and its potential for derailment.

That kind of case study, role play practice is something we do in our leadership programs. People often say it’s among the most enlightening sessions of any workshop. It’s exactly what I demonstrated in the NewsU webinar. After all, isn’t it better to learn from positive, practical examples than from our painful mistakes? See you in class!

In this companion podcast, I’ll add a few more insights into those dangerous 4 “D”s that derail a difficult talk.

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