Crucial conversations versus radical candour – which one is best?

Hi, I’m Nicola from The People Mentor. Today, I’m going to look at different approaches to dealing with crucial and difficult conversations to get the best outcome.

No manager ever relishes having a conversation where they have to let someone go, or tell them about a change they weren’t expecting. Sometimes it’s not actually delivering the news that’s the worst part, it’s worrying about what will happen afterwards.

Today we’re going to look at crucial conversations versus radical candour. What is the best way to get better at handling difficult conversations?

Let’s look.

So crucial conversations, what do we mean by that?

Well, a crucial conversation is a conversation between two or more people where;

The stakes are high;

People have different opinions on the best outcome;

Emotions are running high;

And the outcome will have a significant impact on people and there’s a risk of negative consequences.

You can probably list the conversations you’ve had with people that fit the bill. Maybe you’ve had to speak to a team member who wasn’t pulling their weight. Or you’ve had to talk to someone who was being rude and disrespectful and causing problems in the team.

Whatever it was, you’ll probably remember how uncomfortable it felt.

The bone dry throat or the stomach ache you had leading up to the conversation. The fear or irritation you felt. Beating yourself up because you lost control and walked out or raised your voice.

The reason it’s so hard to handle crucial conversations well is that the higher the stakes and the higher the emotions involved, the less effective we become.

These types of fraught situations set off our stress response too. This makes it harder for us and others to control our emotions and think clearly.

When it comes to these difficult conversations, there are normally three routes we go down as managers;

The first is trying to avoid them completely. Be honest, who’s done this? Have you buried your head in the sand, hoping that an issue would just resolve itself?

Maybe instead of dealing with the problem directly, you’ve complained to others about it. 

Or maybe you’ve let it go round and round in your mind until it’s driven you mad.

Whatever you’ve done, avoidance is never a good idea.

The second way things may have gone is that you’ve had the conversation and it went badly. Maybe you or the other person struggled to contain your emotions or you didn’t feel prepared.

The third way, and the ideal, is that the conversation goes well. You felt prepared and this is partly because you’ve taken time to reflect on difficult conversations you’ve had before. This can help you do things better next time. If you know that you tend to keep your feelings bottled up, for example, you can work on expressing them honestly and respectfully.

So how do you get to the point where you achieve this magical third way?

Well, first of all, you need to prepare.

Decide what the issue really is.

You can’t deal with something if it’s not clear exactly what you’re dealing with.

Say you noticed a team member arriving late to work one day and they don’t give you an explanation.

If it had only happened on this one occasion, the conversation you’ll have with them will be very different from the one you’d be having if they were coming in late every day.

Next, decide on the purpose of the conversation. This will help keep things focused.

Obviously, you’d need to get more information from the employee and then maybe make a plan to improve things.

Once you’ve thought about that, you need to choose a time and place to have the conversation. The discussion needs to take place at a mutually agreed time and in a location where you can speak freely and privately.

Let’s look at how you might approach a crucial conversation with your team member.

I’d encourage you to think about yourself first. I don’t mean this in a selfish way, I mean be aware of what you want from the conversation and your behaviour.

Ask yourself:

What do you want from the conversation?

This could be something like “ I want to clarify why X is coming into work late and I’d like them to understand the impact that this is having on the team.”

What do I want for my team member?

Maybe this is something like “ I want them to be able to share whatever is preventing them from getting into work on time and know that I will support them wherever I can.”

Ask yourself ‘How do I need to conduct myself so it’s more likely that I’ll achieve this outcome?’

It’s not about winning or losing. It’s not about being drawn into arguments that will create tension. It’s about resolving a troubling situation and restoring harmony for the good of the team.

After thinking about what you want from the conversation, you need to make sure you keep things both safe and productive for everyone involved.

If you don’t feel safe or if your team member doesn’t, the conversation is never going to be productive.

Think about the conversations you’ve had when it hasn’t felt safe to share how you feel.

I can remember times when I’ve withdrawn from a conversation, broken down in tears, and felt intimidated.

You or your team member shouldn’t have to feel like that, so do everything you can to make it feel safe to share. And by the way, this doesn’t just apply to crucial conversations, it applies to any conversation.

There should always be mutual purpose and mutual respect. You’re looking to work together to find a solution where everyone’s interests and values are considered.

Now we’re approaching the tough part; you need to get a handle on your emotions.

We already know that in a crucial conversation, emotions are running high and there’s more at stake. This is why it can be difficult to master your emotions.

But if you learn to manage your emotions, this is half the battle of ‘doing difficult conversations’ well.

So what drives these strong emotions you feel when you have to deal with a team member?

Sometimes it can be the story you’re telling yourself about the situation.

Take one manager, let’s call her Suzanne. One day she sees a team member leave work 30 minutes early without speaking to her about it. This really irritates Suzanne.

Her irritation is made worse by the fact that she’s told herself that this team member is lazy and selfish and that it’s not the first time she’s left her colleagues in the lurch.

The next day, Suzanne has a real go at the team member.

Now if she had just stopped to think ‘what else could be going on here?’ and told herself a different story, it might have helped her to manage her emotions better.

Maybe the team member got an urgent call about her child being sick or her partner being rushed to the hospital. In her panic, she just picked her things up and left. It’s possible.

So before you spiral into irritation or anger, ask yourself;

  • How am I feeling about this situation?
  • Am I telling myself a story about it?
  • Are there any facts that back up my story, or is it just my interpretation of what’s going on?

This will hopefully help you take a more balanced view. It’s not easy to do at the moment, I know, but with practise, you can get there.

So managing your own emotions is an important part of having crucial conversations. Realising that you can speak honestly and openly without offending someone is another.

Make sure you present the person with facts and not your opinion of what’s going on.

This might look like you saying to a team member “ I’ve noticed that you’ve missed the last three team meetings.”

This is a fact and can be proven, there’s no need to add anything.

At this point, you can explain how you see things and how the team is being affected.

So you might say “ I’m concerned that it affects the team when you miss out on key information in meetings. Meetings are an important time to come together and communicate to keep everything running smoothly.”

Remember that the other person might not see the issue as an issue. So ask them how they see things and do a bit of digging to find out why they’ve missed a number of meetings.

In an ideal world, you might be able to get to the bottom of the issue without too much trouble. But the thing about crucial conversations is that by nature, they’re difficult.

If the other person reacts emotionally or does the opposite and completely clams up, it doesn’t need to mean disaster though.

There are a few things you can do to pull things back.

Try asking for their thoughts on what’s been happening and remember to acknowledge any emotions they’re experiencing.

Paraphrasing to show you’ve understood what they’ve said is another way to show that you’re listening and you value what they’re saying.

Other things you can try if you don’t seem to be making headway with these are;

Finding what you do agree on;

And comparing your points of view if they differ. This is not about you saying they are wrong, it’s about sharing your perspective.

The ultimate aim of a crucial conversation is to work together to find a solution to the issue that works for everyone. Never leave the conversation without a plan of action. You and your team member need to get clear on who’s responsible for doing what when it will be done by, and how this will be followed up.

I would recommend that you document everything and make sure there’s accountability, or if not, there’s another crucial conversation to be had.

Any difficult conversation, no matter what it is, has the potential to go far better if there’s already trust between you and your team.

This is where radical candour comes in.

If you’ve never heard the term before, radical candour means having open, honest, and direct conversations with your team while still being able to show you care.

It’s about allowing people to experience and feel their emotions and controlling your reaction to those emotions.

Let’s face it, difficult conversations can provoke difficult reactions. Some people might get visibly angry or upset, others may go quiet and withdrawn, and some might turn on you and point the finger.

Say you have to tell someone they are being made redundant.

You have to allow the person to take in the news, help them process it, and hopefully guide them towards acceptance and feeling better about things.

They need a safe space to process the news and how they are feeling because they are likely to be experiencing a lot of different emotions.

You’ve got the worry that they won’t have an income. Maybe anger and irritation that they’ve given so much to the business, yet this is how they are being treated. Then there’s the stress of searching for another job.

Expect strong emotions to arise and some of these will be aimed at you.

Dealing with a difficult conversation with radical candour means you don’t get swept up in their emotions.

You are able to rationalise that their emotions are normal and natural in this situation, and let things play out.

Radical candour is about being honest while truly caring about the other person.

It’s not about trying to ‘fix’ anything and tell them what to do next, it’s about helping them understand why they are made redundant.

Giving them space to cry if they want to. Giving them space to ask questions and make sure you really listen. Making sure your answers are open and sincere. If you don’t know the answer, say so.

It’s not about making them feel better quickly so that you can feel more comfortable. The best thing you can do is be supportive. Ask what they need from you, what is on their mind, and what they are struggling with the most.

These kinds of conversations will feel even more difficult if you’re an empathetic person by nature. But don’t forget that most people are more resilient than you give them credit for.

Yes, you may have had to deliver terrible news, and it will hurt, but they will process it in time. They, and you, will be able to move forward eventually.

I personally think that radical candour is an excellent way to get better at having difficult conversations. However, it’s more effective when you already have a level of trust and respect in your team and you know each other on a certain level.

No doubt you’ve heard people talk about being ‘radically honest.’ Often, this can be blatant rudeness dressed up in the guise of honesty.

Radical candour can work the same way. It is about directness and honesty, but it’s not about being harsh or rude.

Say you’re delivering feedback. You can’t extremely harsh or say something that hurts or offends someone then pass it off as ‘radical candour.’

As a rule, whenever you’re giving feedback or you need to approach a difficult conversation, you need to keep these things in mind;

Make sure you address issues or give feedback in a way that will help someone improve and grow;

Address problems as soon as you can, don’t avoid them as they might only become more serious over time;

Deal with issues privately and don’t make it personal when you do. There’s a big difference between;

“ I noticed that you have been late for the last couple of mornings” and “ You’re always late!”

Do you feel like you need some support with having difficult conversations?

When it comes to thinking about what to say and how to say it, do you feel way out of your depth?

Are there issues that desperately need to be addressed but you can’t seem to rip off the band-aid and have that difficult conversation?

My ‘Making Difficult Conversations Easier’ programme is all about helping managers have the confidence to deal with problems, hold difficult conversations, and build engagement to create an open, honest, and high-performing workforce.

Imagine having a team where nobody is scared to speak up about something, that performs better, and is productive, engaged, and profitable. Imagine that everyone wants to work together for the good of the business and no issue is insurmountable.

It’s all possible.

Get in touch to book a discovery call.

That’s all from today’s podcast. I hope it gave you some food for thought and that it makes some of those difficult conversations you’ve been dreading feel that bit easier.

Goodbye for now, and see you next time.

Want to read more about difficult conversations then pop along to the next blog

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