As human beings, we are naturally and regularly thrown into situations where critical conversations are needed; from complaining to a service provider on the other end of the phone to speaking to a family member about a particularly troubling turn of events.
Despite this lifelong relationship with critical conversations, very few of us would ever say we’re comfortable having them. By their very nature they are complex, uncomfortable and prone to descending into arguments or outbursts of emotion that then have to be dealt with.
In the workplace, critical conversations happen across the board and at every level. More often than not, it is the responsibility of independent coaches, HR professional and line managers to ensure they are handled correctly. Equally, the definition of critical conversation doesn’t start and end with heated office confrontations and dismissals; a critical conversation is any interaction that incorporates opposing opinions, strong emotions and high stakes. In some organisations, this definition could cover almost all conversations, highlighting why it is essential to be prepared and capable.
In all cases the purpose of a critical conversation is to achieve a desired outcome, and often this stems from either party airing something that has never been said before. There are three avenues to travel down when considering critical conversations:
• Avoiding the unsaid concern
• Facing the issue head-on but handling it poorly
• Facing the issue but excelling.
Perhaps due to the nature of Britishness and our own cultural sensitivities, we are often tempted to avoid critical conversations as much as possible. ‘Critical’ and ‘confrontational’ are often tarred with the same brush, and we imagine the possibility of uncomfortable outpourings of emotion that we are not prepared to deal with. Then there’s the issue of not quite saying what we mean; pouring our thoughts into subtle references and unclear anecdotes to mask the real issue at hand.
To avoid a critical conversation you may try compromise, but again this can have the effect of not solving the problem and simply putting it off for another day. To fully move forward, you must encourage critical conversations, as it provides an access point to transformation- like opening a gate and allowing the individual to walk through to the other side. The handling of this journey from one side to another will mean the difference between a happy employee and an individual who feels pressured or frankly exhausted by the sheer mental energy required to jump the hurdles you have set in place.
How can you prepare for the conversation?
It is important to remember that during the critical conversation process, the only person you can really control is yourself, so ensure you have taken the time to prepare and think about what you hope to achieve. Rather than getting weighed down by erroneous detail, focus on the big thing you want the other person across from you to take away from the conversation. Now, decide what position you are standing in. If it is a case of ‘I am right and they need to know this’ think about how you might articulate this, how your body language will appear and how the tone of your voice could give away your frustrations or fear.
In can be difficult managing your approach in the lead up to the conversations, and although you may wish to prepare for possible outcomes, it can also be argued that choosing a position – deciding whether someone will be angry, sad, frustrated, happy, bemused by your actions ahead of time – can be uniquely disempowering and cause you to present a particular ‘face’ to the person sat across from you. This is where the paradox of critical conversations lies: finding the balance between preparing and reacting, not leaving things to chance and letting the chips fall where they may. You need to be prepared and open; to be prepared for the worst but go in to a meeting with the type of optimism one would have if a ‘best case scenario’ could be guaranteed.
How can the employee prepare?
What about the person sat across from you, how can they best be prepared for a critical conversation? Freud said that people need to be prepared for insight, and this is certainly true when it comes to critical conversation. When caught unaware, an individual is likely to enter a reactionary fight or flight response as soon as they understand what is happening; they will either freeze, shut down, get aggressive or emotional which is unlikely to result in the transformational effect you’re aiming for. Therefore, you should set up a situation to give the individual time to prepare, to gather their thoughts and accept that they will soon be involved in an important discussion.
Unlike the 360 degree feedback process, however, telling an individual they are required for a critical conversation too far ahead of time is likely to result in significant distress. Equally, announcing to the individual in front of other colleagues that they are required for a meeting in the next hour, or the following morning, could result in embarrassment. It is up to you to ensure that timing, privacy and location are all aligned so as to make the situation as comfortable, and safe, as possible for the person in question. If this is not achieved, the conversation will be resented before it has even taken place. For line managers, an ideal situation would be to incorporate a critical conversation into a regular, pre-planned one-on-one meeting, ensuring that, outwardly, there is nothing ‘out of the ordinary’ about the situation for the employee or their colleagues.
When the critical conversation begins, there are a number of ways in which an individual can react. For someone who is sullen, quiet or clearly anxious, you will be required to turn on your listening skills and really hone in on what the individual is leaving unsaid. They may have unfulfilled expectations from the meeting that you need to expose, for example, were they expecting you to say something else? Are they disappointed to be hearing one thing instead of another? By listening carefully, you can make it easy for them to express what the real issue is by unpicking the upset and discovering the true root of their concerns.
For managers, you may feel under pressure from a particularly defensive or sensitive individual, but ultimately it is your job to safeguard their emotional well-being. Aim to speak persuasively and not aggressively by considering the critical conversation as a type of transaction. What are you providing the individual with and what would you like them to take away from the conversation? What benefits have they received from being put through a critical conversation in the first place?
As your conversation draws to a close it is time to consider the ‘now what?’ If done carefully, the follow-up required from a critical conversation should be obvious and easy to implement. Even if the results aren’t clear on first glance, it is your responsibility to ensure that the benefits of the truth-telling and dynamic shift you have just experienced aren’t squandered. You should ask clear questions such as ‘What do you take from this?’ and ‘Are you OK with this?’ to ensure that the left individual feels secure enough to return to work, feeling lighter and more optimistic about themselves.
If you want to introduce critical conversations, you must be willing to accept the responsibility of the outcomes. As a coach, line manager or HR professional, you are in charge of guaranteeing the safety of those involved and the coaching that follows. If you enter into the realm of critical conversations, without having the follow-up support in place, you are leaving that person leaning into a trust fall, without having someone waiting to catch them. Asking an individual to enter into such a situation for a second time would be far more difficult than simply catching them in the first place.
About Elva Ainsworth:
Elva Ainsworth is the founder and managing director of Talent Innovation and author of new book 360 degree feedback: A Transformational Approach (£15.99, Panoma Press). In HR, she enjoyed implementing the brand-new psychometrics, as well as designing culture change and personal development interventions. In 1994, she focused on her love of psychometrics by joining SHL (now CEB), the leading business psychologists, where she managed the 360-degree feedback and management development practice in both the UK and the USA.