Managing Difficult Conversations is one of the main job of a manager and a leader. One of my best employees committed an offense that could have been fireable. He made an offer to a client, and had no idea it was against our rules. When it came time for us to speak, he was justifiably shaken and fearful.
This was one of numerous difficult conversations I’ve faced as a senior leader at multiple companies. Another time, I had an employee who got drunk at a Christmas party and began hitting on colleagues. The next day, we had to address it.
And just a short time after starting at one business, I had the unfortunate task of laying off some poor fit employees – good people that I had only just met.
Leaders are born but can be made to handle difficult conversations
My ability to handle the sensitivities and emotions of these conversations has been helped along by an important conversational skill that millions of sales professionals like me have spent years honing: mimicry.
When you’re looking to make an exchange productive, it’s helpful to show the other person that you hear what they’re saying. This includes repeating their own words back to them. A study found that waiters who repeat their customer’s orders verbatim make about 70% more in tips.
Similar mimicry can pay off in difficult workplace conversations. Northeastern University reports that managers should listen actively when facing conflict with employees. “Ask questions to make sure you’re understanding what they’re saying, and repeat their message back to them to ensure you’re both on the same page.”
Mimicry can go beyond words, and into body language as well. Researchers have praised the “chameleon effect,” in which you imitate the movement and tone of the other person. Doing so can help bring a sense of safety and cohesion to a conversation.
But when it comes to difficult conversations, mimicry can sometimes make things worse.
Set the stage correctly to address difficult conversations
When a frightened, concerned, or angry employee walks in the door for a tough meeting, it’s likely that their body language will be closed off. As the book Effective Difficult Conversations explains, “we can let our body unconsciously mirror” behaviours such as crossed arms, a scowl, and a lack of eye contact, “or we can assert some discipline and hold an open body position, direct eye contact, and a slight smile.” Those who do the latter are more likely to help lessen the anxiety and have a productive dialogue.
I have found that I need to be careful with the language I use. If an employee says something out of anger or fear that isn’t crucial to the conversation, I’m unlikely to echo it. But repeating back key points while maintaining open body language helps a great deal.
“You didn’t know that was a rule.” “You had too much to drink, and you feel terrible about it.” “Challenges with some prospects were beyond your control.” By saying these kinds of things, I am able to show all my employees that I heard them — and that, despite the circumstances, I will respected how terrible they felt. This can be especially helpful when these conversations take place by phone, without the benefit of eye contact and body language.
Emotions aside – discuss when you can
If an employee has misbehaved or broken a rule, you may wonder, why try to help them feel comfortable? Of course, being stern and clear is important. But in all the examples I mentioned. Working to calm things down and ensure we heard each other led to a positive outcome.
The great employee was given a chance to express his remorse for breaking a rule, open up about how awful he felt. Surfacing steps to rectify the mistake. He went on to be an even better employee.
The man who had gotten drunk chose to resign and take steps to avoid repeating such behaviour in the future. He understood that staying would have meant facing certain consequences, and that his workplace relationships were damaged. He took responsibility, owned his decision, and moved forward.
And while being laid off is painful, those I had to let go at least understood the rationale. We were also able to talk about their positive and highly transferable skills,. This could point them in the right direction for the next stage of their careers.
Nothing makes difficult conversations easy. And engaging in the positive uses of mimicry while avoiding the pitfalls can feel like a balancing act. But the more genuine your effort is to navigate it, the more successful you’ll be.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published by Cerebral Selling and has been updated for comprehensiveness.