Walking the Tightrope: Difficult Conversations

For managers, handling difficult conversations is a lot like walking a tightrope. You know where you want to end up, but you also know that the path is precarious, you must keep your balance and you need a safety net in case things go wrong.

If you’re like most of us, nobody gave you tightrope walking lessons when you were promoted to management. You found yourself settling disputes, raising uncomfortable issues and delivering bad news –- and learning by trial and error.

That’s not necessarily the best education, considering tough talks can have a profound impact on your people, your newsroom culture – and your success as a leader. Too many errors, and everyone suffers.

I’m going to share a few tips on difficult conversations for you. But first, I’ll share some good news. For more than tips – for a whole course on walking that tightrope – we’ve just launched my "Dealing with Difficult Conversations: A Guide for Managers and Others" course on NewsU.

Even better news: The course is free.

I’ve tried to incorporate many of the things I teach in our seminars and workshops. You’ll be able to assess your preferred style of conflict resolution and determine the best approach for different "threat levels" of conversations (is this a firing or a chat about body odor?). You’ll see video examples of how to start and end conversations, and how to deal with challenges that pop up as you walk the tightrope. You’ll be able to test your knowledge along the way through fun quizzes.

I must confess that I faced a conflict going into this adventure. I’m a big believer in the personal touch and interactivity in teaching, and I had to be assured that this distance-learning approach wouldn’t be cold, dull and didactic. The NewsU gang, especially Assistant Interactive Learning Producer Phil Zepeda, who designed the architecture of the course, lowered my anxiety with massive doses of creativity as we worked together for months. They even had about 100 people test the course in advance and used their feedback to refine it.

We’d love your feedback after you take the course. And if after you take it, you’re still stuck on the tightrope with a difficult conversation challenge, you can e-mail me for advice. I’ll try to be your safety net.

Now, as promised, here are my…

Top Ten Tips for Difficult Conversations

1. Be clear about your goal. Know exactly what you want to accomplish in the conversation and why. Include "preserve the dignity of the other person" as part of your overall goal.

2. Know yourself. Specifically, know your "default" style of conflict resolution. If you know that at heart you’re a competitor, compromiser, collaborator, accommodator or avoider, you can determine if that style will serve you best or if circumstances require another approach.

3. Prepare. Gather the information you’ll need. Think through how you want to handle the conversation. Don’t hesitate to rehearse with another manager if you think the talk is going to be especially tricky. Alert your boss and HR if you will need them to get your back.

4. Start strong. Align your opening words with the seriousness of the conversation. Know when to ease into the conversation and when to lead with the bad news.

5. Don’t pile on. Focus your conversation on your goal. Don’t toss in a variety of other concerns or offenses that can complicate or sabotage your conversation. Stay focused.

6. Focus on behaviors. Describe the precise behaviors that you want more or less of. Telling people to change their attitudes or thinking is ambiguous. Telling people what behaviors they must change is specific and measurable.

7. Expect emotion. Emotion –- yours and theirs -– is a normal part of conflict and difficult conversations. Make certain you manage yours well. Don’t let emotion overcome your reason. If the other person becomes angry, stay calm, defuse the tension and if need be, take a break. Don’t assume tears signify an attempt to manipulate you; some people cry instinctively. Keep tissues handy.

8. Stay on track. The other person may try to deflect, deny, change the subject, or make you the subject of the conversation. Be prepared to herd the words back to your goal.

9. End smart. Sum up. Repeat what you heard the other person say. Consider asking for a summary of what the other person heard. This gives you a chance to clear up misperceptions. Talk about next steps.

10. Follow up. It may be paperwork for big issues or a conversation for smaller ones, but tough talks demand follow-up. If you handle difficult conversations well, your follow-up may take the form of positive feedback because the other person heard the right message –- and responded constructively.

Every difficult conversation is a little different, and every employee deserves the manager’s personalized attention. That’s why these tips are the starting point – and why we all need to keep learning how to walk that tightrope!

To take the “Dealing with Difficult Conversations” course, simply log on to NewsU.org and register.

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    Jill Geisler

    Jill helps news managers learn how to lead her favorite people in the world - journalists. Good journalists, she points out, question authority and resist "spin." It takes exceptional leaders to build trust, along with the systems and culture that grow great journalism.


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