I’ve had a lot of difficult discussions over my career. I’ve taken people’s employment away. I’ve sent them to the doctor because the medical we asked them to undertake identified a serious condition. I’ve had a lot of discussions where an individual’s perception of their performance was quite different to their manager’s.

These are my top tips for prepping for these conversations.

Script it

When managers and business partners first start to have these discussions I encourage them to script it. Write down what you want to say. What are the key messages that need to be covered? Practice it. Do this to help you feel confident in what you need to say. Dot points are great.

Take your script into the meeting with you, but don’t read from it. Check it to make sure you’ve covered the key points.

Stick to observations, avoid assumptions

What is the actual behaviour you want to talk about? What’s observable? Use your mapping to help you crystallise this. Avoid assumptions. It’s tempting to assume why something has happened. “If you weren’t so lazy…” If you just tried harder…”

People are both complex and simple. The reality is we have no idea what is going on in someone’s head. What they do makes sense to them, perhaps not to you.

Assumptions trigger an emotional, defensive response in others. Don’t assume. Ask. About the observable and why it happened. The person will feel far more respected and heard. It’s an opportunity to learn something about what makes this person tick.

Invite the person to the meeting

No one likes to feel ambushed. Pulling someone into a discussion with no notice tends to heighten emotion from the beginning and respond defensively.

Invite the person to the meeting. Talk to them rather than send an email out of nowhere. Try “I’d like to catch up for 30 minutes this afternoon to talk through the response to Mr Smith’s request to change his order. I’d like to understand what was happening and how we could improve the experience.”

This allows the individual to process some of those defensive responses before they get in the room.

Set the tone

Set the tone from the beginning. People mirror emotions and behaviours. Setting the emotional and behavioural tone from the start of the meeting matters. You start defensive, the meeting will escalate. I guarantee it.

Thank the person for meeting with you. Offer water. Be polite and respectful. Keep your tone as calm and relaxed as possible. Be aware of your body language. Keep it professional.

Let the person know how you’d like to approach the meeting and that they will have an opportunity to be heard. This has two important purposes. First it outlines the “rules” of the meeting. Second you can often visually see the person’s defences dismantling. If their defences aren’t right up you can have a real conversation.

What are your top tips for having conversations? What works for you?

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