Even the most confident HR pros get tripped up delivering difficult messages.
And if you have trouble, can you imagine the struggles front-line managers have when they need to cover the difficult stuff?
Here’s what happens when the message is buzzkill: Most people who have to deliver it put it off.
In fact, leaders are slower to share bad news than good news, a study in Social Science Research Network found.
It might be easier to deliver a positive message, but it’s more important to get a difficult message right.
“We all go around with the best of intentions trying to get other people to listen to us, and usually fall flat on our faces,” says Richard Gallagher in his book How to Tell Anyone Anything.
While most managers don’t outright fail every time they want people to listen to and act accordingly to difficult stuff, the message comes out wrong sometimes. But Gallagher’s CANDID approach to relaying the difficult stuff can help anyone say anything to anyone else in an effective way.
Here’s the process.
1. Compartmentalize difficult stuff
Even difficult messages have positive areas. Divide your message into safe and unsafe parts.
This helps you start the conversation in a safe place that creates a dialogue, rather than a monologue of your thoughts.
Avoid putting people on the spot with statements such as, “You always … ” or “You don’t … ”
Instead, open like this, “Tell me about how you approach this task” or “Tell me how you feel about the current … ?”
2. Ask better questions
Ask good questions before you give your angle. Take on a “learning posture”: Face the person (or people) you’re talking with and lean in a bit. Then explore their thoughts or position with questions:
- “It seems like you’re frustrated with … What’s going on?”
- “You seem concerned. How do you feel about our position on … ?”
- “I noticed you did X. What happened?”
3. Normalize the situation
This could be the most important step in communicating effectively through a difficult topic – such
as correcting behavior or denying a promotion.
You want to let people know you’re OK with the reasons behind their issue or their negative feelings on the situation.
Then they don’t feel shame, and you open the conversation for problem solving. Say:
- “I see why you’d be frustrated.”
- “I understand the troubles you face with …”
- “You have every right to be upset.”
4. Discuss the situation
Now’s your time to share everything you know and your take on it. The key is to remain neutral. Share the facts: “You were late four times last week” or “I promoted another employee.”
Then explain how it affects others: “Your co-workers pick up the slack, and the extra work hurts morale” or “I’m pleased with your work, but it’s not at the level we need to fulfill the position effectively.”
Finally, invite them to be part of a solution: “What can we do to improve this?” or “What can we do to help you grow in your career?”
5. Incentivize the solution
When people see a benefit in changing, rather than the punishment for a failing, they’re more likely to succeed.
Offer something. For example: “If you can get a handle on arriving on time, you’ll have more control to pick your shifts” or “If you offer to lead more projects, you’ll have tremendous leadership potential here.”
6. Disengage from the discussion
Let it go on a positive note. It reaffirms the good working relationship you had going into the conversation.
Don’t rehash points. Leave it at a point where the only step is forward. You’ll likely see other people step in the same direction, and your relationship and/or the situation becomes stronger.