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Difficult Conversations in Difficult Times

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In tough times, we're forced to have the difficult conversations we don't want to have. But how leaders handle them makes a dramatic difference.

Difficult Conversations in Difficult Times

A 480 PODCAST

Difficult Conversations in Difficult Times

16 minutes | 6/3/2020

00:00:00 00:00

Craig Irons:

Hello again, and welcome to the Leadership 480 Podcast. My name is Craig Irons, and I'll be your host for this episode. For the past few weeks, the news has been dominated by two sets of headlines. The first set, of course, are the headlines about the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, its public health implications, and its impact on the daily lives of those in the US and around the world. The second set of headlines which appear to be growing in number daily are those concerning the unknown, full economic impact of the global pandemic. Taken together, these two sets of headlines underscore the obvious, that now is an especially challenging time to be a leader. What's always been part of leadership, the need to have challenging or difficult conversations, has become or will soon become an unsettling reality for a great many leaders.

So how can leaders best navigate challenging conversations in these challenging times? Well, to talk about that today, we have two fantastic guests. John Verdone is a senior consultant, and Meagan Aaron is a managing consultant both here at DDI. Between the two of them, they have trained countless thousands of leaders around the world on how to interact effectively and that includes how to have challenging conversations. They have also both been in leadership roles themselves, and they had to have those hard conversations that we'll be talking about today. What's more, both John and Meagan have been executive coaches helping leaders manage individual and global crises and also working with organizations to manage complexity. John and Meagan, thanks for being with us on the Leadership 480 Podcast today.

John Verdone:

Great to be with you.

Meagan Aaron:

Thanks for hosting.

Craig Irons:

John, let's start with you this first question. So when we think of a challenging conversation, what first comes to mind for a lot of people is a conversation they have to have with someone about their job performance. But what other types of tough conversations do leaders need to make sure they don't take too lightly?

John Verdone:

Great question to kick us off. I think you're right. Most people are thinking of, "I've got a disciplinary issue I've got to deal with, or maybe I have to lay somebody off," or things that you can really prep for and plan for in advance. Now, on top of that, with the isolation that's going on with the COVID virus, even those conversations are going to be incredibly hard because now we're not even face to face with them anymore. But I would just add that I think what people don't think about are the conversations that they don't think are going to be challenges that turn into challenges. So they don't have time to prep for those ahead of time. So they're caught off guard by people that they're there.

For example, you might have someone who is actually a pretty good performer in the organization. You haven't spent as much time with that person. You've been focusing on others. All of a sudden in an update meeting, they mentioned to you or bring out some frustration about you given all your time to these people that are not performing, and they're starting to feel neglected in some way. So the ones where you have to kind of think on your feet I think are really the example I would add in of some of the challenging conversations that you just don't quite think of and then just come upon you as a surprise.

Craig Irons:

Sure, sure. Meagan, let me ask you. Practice enables leaders to be more effective when having difficult conversations. But should those conversations ever get easier? I mean, to what extent should a difficult conversation always be difficult to have?

Meagan Aaron:

I think the part of the difficult conversations is that you're discussing it with a human. Humans will always have a variable of reactions, of their thoughts, of their commitments. So you may have a structure for the conversation and intended outcomes that you want to achieve. If you're solely thinking about you and not the other person, their needs and their preferences and not adapting to meet those types of needs and preferences, that's going to be the constant place that continuously makes this difficult, that you can't predict who that day you're going to be speaking with. Even if that person remains consistent, they may have have had a difficult home conversation, another peer discussion. So there's just a lot of variables, and it's the human side of things that makes those consistently hard.

John Verdone:

Can I jump in and add to that?

Craig Irons:

Please do.

John Verdone:

Yeah. That's a great answer, Meagan. I think the other thing, just as you worded the question, Craig, was should this get easier? I think another way of saying that is, will this become more comfortable for a leader, as they've done it more potentially? I think that's one of the criteria people set. They say, "Well, I just want to get to the point where I'm more comfortable having this type of conversation if I have to." When I'm coaching, what I like to tell people is that comfort shouldn't be a goal. The goal should be, how can I have the conversation effectively while I'm feeling uncomfortable? Because the only way you'll get more comfortable is to have a repetition of a right to do it over and over again. So you've caught yourself in a weird spiral here if you're waiting for comfort before you have. So I tell people that it takes courage. You got to jump in and do it, and don't let how you're feeling about or your comfort level hold you back from having these critical conversations.

Craig Irons:

So Meagan, kind of related to that, is there a danger in leaders becoming too comfortable having hard conversations? Is it a situation whereby the minute you begin sort of taking these conversations in stride, that the next time you have one, you maybe won't be as effective as you need to be when you have it?

Meagan Aaron:

I think one of the words to replace with comfort is confidence. You should increase your confidence in having the conversation that you have met the needs of the individual, and you've also achieved an outcome where both of you are in agreement with what the next steps forward are, whatever behavior change needs to occur, or again, just go back to the purpose of the conversation that using that by beginning with the end in mind. So comfort, not so much because there should be that process tension of ensuring, did I balance both achieving what they needed and what I needed, and what's a positive outcome?

But I think the word is, and from my own personal experience of leading others and having those conversations, it wasn't so much I was ever comfortable about it, but I was more confident that I knew what to expect. I did practice so that I could think through contingencies, and then I felt again that I knew where I was headed versus maybe trying to figure it out without a plan or without any focus. So that's the word that I kept... When you kept saying the word comfort, I was like, "It's not comfort. What is it instead?" It's very much, can I go into this with a higher level of confidence?

Craig Irons:

Yeah, that's a great point, Meagan. John, anything you would add to that? Can leaders get too comfortable? Or maybe, well, kind of to Meagan's point, confidence matters. But can leaders become even too overconfident, if you will, when it comes to having difficult conversations?

John Verdone:

I have nothing to add on this question.

Craig Irons:

Okay, fair enough.

John Verdone:

Yeah, that was good. I thought Meagan's response was good, and it was kind of counterpoint to the comfort thing in a different perspective. That was great. So yeah, really wise.

Craig Irons:

So John, as you think through the need to have a difficult conversation, what's the best way for a leader to prepare for that conversation?

John Verdone:

When you think about preparing for a tough discussion, I think one of the really core pieces to have clear in your head is what is the message that you want to deliver, and how can you deliver it directly and succinctly so that they clearly understand your messaging? When I was a leader, especially earlier in my career, I wasn't a real guy that liked conflict. I don't think anybody does. We don't want to hurt other people's feelings. So I can remember one conversation I was in where I kind of hinted around the topic a little bit around what I needed them to do differently because I was concerned about how they would react or how they would feel. In hindsight, that wasn't at all the right way to do it. It was a disservice to the person for me not being clear and to myself and the organization that we hadn't been clear with expectations.

So I think if I was going to grab one thing, it would be understand your message and then be sure that you deliver that message clearly, directly, and fully so the other person receives it in the way that you intend.

Craig Irons:

So Meagan, one way a leader might be prepared or might be tempted to be preparing for difficult conversation is to really sort of almost script it out and practice what they plan to say. Have you found that to be an effective approach for preparing for a tough conversation, or is it just better to sort of map out what you're going to say and then let some of it be dictated by kind of what the temperature is in the room, if you will, when you go to have the conversation?

Meagan Aaron:

So I would say yes, script, and say it out loud. So I was thinking around, what does that preparation look like, and I also wrote down a note to myself, it's okay to ask for help with the expectation that you're considering confidentiality. So with whom you ask for help should be someone that is in a peer leadership position that understands the importance of that confidentiality. It could be your leader. It could be an HR partner and the benefit of not just the scripting component because that's where I found it sounds really great in my head because I wrote it. So it sounds great in my head. Sounds great when I recorded it.

But now, there has to be that next step of a reaction. So the gain is you also have a different perspective for what the individual or team is going through because these difficult conversations might not just be a singular exchange. It may be a number of people. It may be in a group setting that you have to... Now the difficulty increases. So there's the benefit of different perspectives. It was the on. The second one was refining the words to what John just mentioned around clear expectations. You can have very deliberate language. So there's no weak words, and I think that in addition to the scripting, it's also say them out loud.

Craig Irons:

So the other part of it is, one is you need to prepare for these conversations. But two, there's also certain skills that leaders need to have in order to have these conversations effectively. John, what would you say are some of the most important skills a leader needs to have in order to be effective at having difficult conversations?

John Verdone:

At DDI, we believe that people have different approaches to communication, and at its most simplistic is the idea that the person that you're having the conversation with has two types of needs from you, and those needs are personal needs and practical needs. So practical needs are around the clarity of the content that you're sharing with them, the efficiency with which you have the discussion. On the personal side, it's more around how they feel like you're treating them while you're having that discussion. Are they feeling like you're showing trust in them, like you're empathetic to the situation that they're in?

So one of the things that we believe is that it's important that you understand the person you're going to talk to, well, to know, which of those two sides do they err more towards Do they err more towards the practical side or more towards the personal side so that you can make an adjustment to your approach in talking to them. Someone who's more practical. You can get more directly to the point. You can talk about the details of what the issue is with them. Somebody that's one on the personal side is going to need more empathy, is going to need more a sense of maintaining their sense of self-worth and using the language that's associated with that.

Sometimes leaders come into this, well, this is my style, and I use that style with everyone. Well, that styles, if you use the same style with everyone, that's going to be very effective for the people that have the same style as you. But one of the skills that I think are critically important as we get to these very difficult discussions is being able to adapt your approach to meet the appropriate level of personal, practical needs that the other person has.

Craig Irons:

Our guests today are Meagan Aaron and John Verdone. They're both consultants here at DDI, and we're talking about the challenges and importance of having difficult conversations, especially in these challenging times. Meagan, given how many people are working remotely right now and are communicating with others via video conferencing, to what extent does technology make having a difficult conversation even more difficult?

Meagan Aaron:

Well, first you have to take yourself off of mute to have a conversation. So that's always been helpful, I have found. I know I say that in to be silly, and yet, how many times this week have you found that you're sharing something really smart and savvy, and everyone's like, "Meagan, are you there? Are you off of mute?" So that's just a small one, but it highlights just how muted we are in our ability to connect. So the part that I would share around what makes it even more difficult is how best can you pick up on the subtle clues that occur during these difficult conversations, whether it's body language, tone. It may be someone who you don't know that well that you've only ever had those face to face conversations with, and now it's a completely different setting, and they sound different or they seem different.

So I think that the intimacy that you have and the face-to-face can make it more difficult. But more difficult does not equal cannot be done. So I think as you navigate us through some additional parts of our conversation today, we'll have a chance to talk about, what are some of the ways in which you can have a very efficient, effective conversation where everyone is feeling like they've been heard and understood?

Craig Irons:

Yeah. I think as you alluded to at the beginning of what you were saying there, technology can only be a barrier, but it can also be quite a distraction. So it can really almost sort of take away from the message, in addition to just being a barrier. John's is there something you would add?

John Verdone:

Yeah. Since we're on technology, but just a couple of things. One is use video chat if you can. So I think when you think about technology, a lot of people are picturing in the past, we would just pick up the phone and call a person, and all we would have is audio to work off of. Honestly, my comfort level has always been with live, face-to-face, and that kind of thing, and like many of us over the last few weeks or months now or so, have been almost forced into video chats. I'm getting more comfortable with that.

With a video chat, however, it's very interesting because you can now see facial expressions, and I think that's what we were missing when we were just talking to somebody on audio is we're saying, "Well, I can't read the body language. I can't read kind of what this looks like to them." I'm quite surprised and humbled by being able to see the other person and being able, I think Meagan used the perfect word about developing a sense of intimacy or closeness with the person, that I'm amazed at how much we can accomplish in that. I'll provide one example which really brought it home to me. So we, as part of our role here as senior consultants and managing consultants at DDI, we give people feedback. Many times we give executives feedback on assessments that they've gone through and 360s and psychological tests and those kinds of things. We do that typically over the phone because they're a distance away.

Many times, you have to deliver a very difficult message to these folks that they thought they were very strong at something, and then in the 360 tool, they got feedback from the people that worked for them that not only are they not strong, but they're viewed as being weak in that particular area, and then they took some assessment tests that confirmed that. So that's a hard message to have to deliver to somebody at that level. So starting just a couple of weeks ago, move that over to video chat with one of the clients that I work with. So I could see the person and read their reactions. It was incredible, not only that I could see how they were reacting, but it actually was helpful for them to see me deliver the message visually as well as just hearing it over the phone.

So I'm all in on video now, in video chat. Honestly, I think when we come out of this time of social isolation, we're going to be still doing it and doing a lot more going forward as an alternative. So as leaders, we better get good at this, right, and better become strong at how we deliver these messages virtually.

Craig Irons:

John, you just referenced sort of when we come out of the self-isolation, and we're recording this today using video chat technology, which is really cool that we can do it this way. But let's talk a bit about timing. So both of you have alluded to the fact that you're having a face-to-face conversation with someone. There's a little more intimacy, and you can pick up on facial expressions and what have you, and also we've talked about the degree to which technology can somewhat get in the way of that. But I guess if you're a leader right now and you know you have to have a really difficult conversation with one of your people, is it better to just go ahead and have it now, or is it better in some cases probably to wait until you're both back in the same physical office space? John, your thoughts?

John Verdone:

Well, if we knew when we were going to be able to get back together live, we could probably make that decision in some ways. Right? So the fact of the matter is we don't know whether we're going to get back together live a month from now or two months from now or three months from now. The decision would also be based upon how serious the conversation was. Is it something I can hold off till our next quarterly review meeting or until we were going to be together for a team meeting of some kind.

With that said, I think you already know the answer to that question, Craig, even in answering it. Probably better to be direct and have the discussion now so that the person can react and respond to it. It doesn't change the nature of the work. It doesn't change the fact that if it's a performance issue, that they've got to correct and become better at it. So I think we need to have the conversations when we can as soon as we can. If that means we're delivering it virtually or in other formats, I think that's the way we have to go as leaders.

Craig Irons:

Meagan, do you agree with that?

Meagan Aaron:

I do agree with because every time we talk about the importance of sharing that information, having that connection, there's a sense of urgency because you've got to think about all of the different ways in which that topic can impact the person, which person extends out, to how they interact with family or friends, how is it impacting a client, how is it impacting the people within that organization, your own organization? So it's the circles of impact that just cascade out further the longer that you wait.

Craig Irons:

So to jump to another topic here. Meagan, let's stay with you. Another thing that maybe is adding a layer of complexity to the way leaders need to communicate right now is just the fact that people are dealing with so much stress. They have kids at home. Many people have a lot of uncertainty about their economic situation, what their job status is going to be, what have you. How should leaders navigate that, especially communicating with their teams?

Meagan Aaron:

I think that how they should navigate is always to provide space. So space for the reactions, a space for questions, space for silence, and not as a leader, taking any of those things personally. So being more focused on what is the environment of that particular time and the call. So I think the other piece around knowing how to navigate that space is connecting it to situations. Situations are changing minute by minute, day by day. So the more that you can read the environment by asking an opening question, see how many responses that you receive, see not just how many receive, but the content of those responses I believe can also ensure that you're providing then, where do you go next? You can see a theme from what John talked about earlier around these adaptations. I think what I have felt leading others over the past few weeks is ensuring that I'm giving them the space to share what they want to share first.

If they want to talk about... I've even done that, not just with my team members, but back to the assessments, I've had some feedback this week, and I said, "Okay, here are the different options that we have." We can do the formal flow of what I would normally guide you through. We can do an abbreviated version of that so you can get some of your time back. Or we could also just focus on what's a current problem that you have right now right this minute. So I think, to repeat, it's the space, it's the adaptation, and provide choices.

Craig Irons:

So John, empathy is a pretty important part of this too, isn't it, right now, in terms of just sort of acknowledging and sort of meeting people where they are in terms of their stress levels.

John Verdone:

It is. A couple of things on that. Stress is all around us today. I mean, stress is building as I'm locked in my room here at my home office here at the house. Literally, 30 feet from me, my wife, who is a first grade teacher has 26 six and seven-year-olds doing a Zoom meeting with them, showing a video of a cow singing and then asking questions of how they go through. I can kind of hear that through the wall, and she can hear me. So beyond just the stress of work, now we've got this added stress that's in there. Then you top that off. Honestly, I'll bet some of you who are on this call listening in to this, maybe you've actually been laid off from your job as a leader and are using this time to try to build your skills up and become stronger and better at what you do so that the next time, when things do come around and you have a job again, you can become stronger at that. So I really, first of all, commend you for that.

But it is a great time for empathy. I think it's a great time for empathy. We're talking very specifically about these challenging, difficult conversations. But in some ways right now, every conversation is a challenging, difficult conversation to have. So we've got to have that skill set. I'm going to actually throw this I think over to Meagan because I think she is kind of a specialist in this area. Maybe Meagan, you could talk a little bit about how you express empathy to others in an effective way so that they hear that and can understand it.

Meagan Aaron:

Yeah. I think the best part around expressing empathy as the first part is to be able to listen to what the other person is sharing. One of the ways in which you can deploy empathy and where I see our leaders that I have the privilege to coach or you thinking in reflecting on your own behavior is we get it wrong when we don't know when to use the skill or how to use the skill. So let me give you just a few then suggestions on the when and the how. The when is certainly, you mentioned the word stress, Craig, which just shows up for different ways, different people, is strong emotions. So you can be looking for those strong, positive or negative emotions. Those are the places and spaces as to when.

In addition to a lot of us have started off our calls with, how are you feeling? How are you? Tune into what those responses are because that is a direct link to an opportunity to then respond with empathy. So there's the listening component, and those are the when, strong emotions, and asking that open-ended check on people's emotions. Then as I mentioned, it's the how and how you respond with empathy. Sometimes we simply want to use the phrase, "I understand," because we so quickly either want to move forward with, what is it that we need to get done, what box we need to check, and that still feeling a need to have control. We just want to say, "I simply understand it." And that's not going to work.

The other part we get stuck in is confusing two words that sound so much alike, empathy and sympathy. You don't have to agree when you empathize. When you are in agreement, you are sympathizing. I don't want to negate the fact that there may be a lot of times ahead of you where you're needing to use the sympathy skill, instead of empathy, just know again, in those places in spaces, as we have put this header today on difficult, tough, challenging conversations, that may be more business focused. You may find yourself leaning more towards the skill of empathy.

Finally, then the last piece of this how is ensure that you balance what emotions did the individual share which were clarified by your ask, how are you feeling? Then link that back to what is causing that emotion. That ensures that you have actively listened. It's not okay just to address one or the other, but it's an and. I have included addressing your emotions and the facts of what's prompting that emotion.

Craig Irons:

That's some great stuff around how to do this right, around how to have difficult conversations in the right way. But of course, leaders don't always get it right. What are some common mistakes that leaders make when it comes to either preparing or maybe even not preparing or otherwise approaching a difficult conversation they need to have?

Meagan Aaron:

I think that place where it leaders can have a common mistake either preparing or having the challenging conversation could be the use of weak words. Weak words could be things like maybe, just, could, would, all of those words that just diminish the deliberate focus that you have on achieving, again, an outcome. I'm not going to put a descriptor on that outcome. Even apologizing. If it's not an appropriate place for an apology, instead of using these weak words, replace it with a pause. The space, like I mentioned earlier, and the silence can really help you prepare your next thought. It can enable the person or a team to react and reflect and process before you move on to the next one.

So when you do that practice that I referenced, that would be important. Whomever is on that receiving end, have them track any of what your specialty week words are, if it's the word just, or if it's maybe, or a little, or kind of. I can't tell you how many times I hear that word kind of. This is that place in space where you've got to be committed with what your path forward is while still ensuring that you're checking in on that human side. But that would be my recommendation is pay attention to weak words.

Craig Irons:

John, what would you add?

John Verdone:

I remember back to I was a pretty new leader. This has been a lot of years ago. I was a pretty new leader. We were going through a difficult time in our company. It was kind of like now in a ways. I was going to have to lay off one of my employees and have that conversation with them. My manager at the time, the person I worked for, this very wise woman that I worked for at the time said, "Well, would you like me to, to sit in on this conversation with you? I know you've never done this before. Would you like me to sit in?" Trying to impress her, I said, "Oh no, no. I've got this. You've got other things you have to do. Why don't you?"

So I really wanted to do well and had every intention. So I really practiced what I wanted to say. I worded it all out. Meagan had mentioned, where I kind of written it out. I practiced over and over again. When the time came to deliver it, I called this person into my office, and I delivered that message. Honestly, I delivered exactly as I intended. I was very proud of myself. The problem was I hadn't thought past that step in it. So he then started to come back to me with questions about what this meant and some of the implications and different things there, and I hadn't thought that through at all.

So I think what I would just add here is that would be one of the mistakes you could make would be so focused on delivering the message that you're not thinking through. Well, what might that person's response be? What might they ask about? What further clarification might they have? So that it doesn't come as a complete surprise to you. Of course, we can't anticipate everything. But there are some things we should be thinking about, and I think the more we can prepare for that, the better off we're going to be.

Craig Irons:

Are there some strategies you can employ when you're preparing for a conversation, knowing that you aren't going to be able to anticipate every response? But in terms of thinking through the possibilities of how the other person might react to what you're saying, what are some good ways to sort of prepare for that and be ready, unlike you weren't in that particular example?

John Verdone:

Yeah. So now, after I said to be sure you've thought through and prepare for the kinds of questions that they would ask, what I'm now going to recommend is that you do the opposite from a reaction standpoint, especially from an emotional reaction standpoint that might come in. That would be, don't assume based on what you know about them, what they will react and say. So oftentimes I think in my head, well, I have a good relationship with this person, and they're pretty mature. I'm not anticipating a lot of issue. Then they surprised me, and it catches me off guard, back to being surprised by things.

So no matter who it is that's sitting across from you, don't make assumptions about how they'll react. Be prepared to respond to a wide range of emotions and request for information of the various things that are out there so that it doesn't throw you. So prepare as much as you can, but then you walk in with an open mind and just ready for whatever will come at you in a particular way. Also, I guess I would add, don't judge their reaction when they do. Some of them might say some pretty hurtful things back to you. Let's say you're delivering a very tough message right now, that you're going to deliver a message in this coronavirus thing, as many people have had to, that the person is going to be laid off or furloughed and not have any income, and they've been an employee for a long period of time for the organization.

Not only are they hurt by it. They're personally offended by it. They think the organization has done this to them unfairly. They may come back at you. They may blame you for it. They may do a number of different things. So it's going to be very, very important that you not only don't assume what the reaction would be, but that you just let all of that flow over you. Don't take it personally. Empathize with the situation that they're in and do just the best you can in a very difficult situation to have it be as positive as it can be, given the very negative circumstances around it.

Craig Irons:

Meagan, what would you add?

Meagan Aaron:

The other part was thinking in terms of, what are the proactive and reactive strategies that I could have that I could deploy. A proactive strategy could be the time of the day. It could also be the environment that you set up to put it more on a place in space where it's feasible for that person to have the quiet time, depending upon what they're managing from a home front perspective. The reactive side would be enabling there to be even a pause in the conversation. So you find that you're getting to that place and space either where it's not productive, or they're not able to process, or they're so upset. You can always press the pause button on this conversation and not push it forward just to achieve that we got things done in the 30 minutes.

You may have to sacrifice time at another point to revisit in a place in space where maybe both of you have had that time to refocus and come back in with a renewed look at something, or again, a higher level of commitment. So I think it's just thinking through, "I've got some proactive techniques that I want to think through, but then here are the ones that I could leverage during as well."

Craig Irons:

When I think back to tough conversations I've had to have as a leader and where I've sort of fallen down on those occasions, I make a win with sort of, "Okay. I want to make sure I cover points A, B, C, and D." But as I have focused on covering those points, the one thing that I probably didn't do effectively enough was listen. Meagan, first you, can you chime in on sort of the importance of listening as a critical skill when you're having one of these tough conversations?

Meagan Aaron:

Yeah. I'm so glad that you asked because I had it jotted down for a response to another question in hopes I would have a chance to share this tip, which I call it the auditory check. If you are effectively navigating a challenging conversation or any conversation, the voice that you should hear more of is not your own lovely voice, although our sound pretty good today on this conversation. I would instead have the focus be on the other person. So do that auditory check. If you hear the balance is more you speaking, that's where you can... Be okay to demonstrate your own humility.

I think I've heard my voice a lot through this conversation. I want to stop, provide you the same space and airtime. So think about that in terms of not just the auditory check. You can also use this as... Remember the quote around proactive versus reactive. That's a reactive strategy. A proactive one could set a ground rule, if you will, around equitable airtime. I want this conversation to have equitable airtime, and here's how we'll manage that. We'll take some turns, certainly how you've been modeling that today during this facilitated conversation.

Craig Irons:

John.

John Verdone:

Yeah. I think Meagan did a great job there of talking kind of about the listening skill. I would add one other thing to listening that I don't think has come up so far in our discussion, and that is the importance of authenticity and you being authentic in how you're delivering the message and what you're talking about. If you're having these conversations with members of your team, they already know who you are. You've probably had a lot of discussions with them. So now isn't the time to get tough and put on a tough persona with them. So be yourself through all of this and all these suggestions. Be yourself and so that they can really see that it's you they're having the conversation with. Don't think you have to behave or act differently than you normally would. Let this be as natural a conversation as it can be, even though it's a very difficult conversation.

Craig Irons:

Talking today to John Verdone and Meagan Aaron, consultants here at DDI on the conversation of having difficult conversations in these difficult times. I know you've both alluded to some of your own personal experiences having tough conversations. But I just want to ask you very specifically if you can share examples of the most difficult conversation you had to have and how you navigated it. John, we'll start with you.

John Verdone:

I called an employee of mine into the office Friday afternoon at 3:00 to tell him that he was no longer going to be employed in the company, that it was a tough decision, but it had to be made, and that they were waiting for him in the human resources department. If he would walk over there, they would have all the information that he needed and talked to him about the severance that was going to take place. I did this on Friday at 3:00. The next day on Saturday, he was getting married, and every one of us in the department were invited to his wedding. True story.

Now, in hindsight, this was a number of years ago. In hindsight, I wouldn't have done. I wouldn't. It just sounds cruel and inhumane, but I was being pushed. A number of people where this was happening to over it. So I sat down with him. I delivered the message. I was as empathetic as I could possibly be. When I told him that he could go over to human resources, he did not get up out of the chair. He sat there. His head was down. Then I could see he was crying. Just sobbing. Two guys sitting in a room, one of them crying. I had no idea what to say. I literally did not know how to respond to this in any way.

What I think was the biggest mistake of my life in doing a conversation like that, because I couldn't figure out what to say, I went back to what I thought I should say. These aren't my exact words, but I said something like, "I know this is hard now. But when you look back upon it, you'll realize it was really a thing that allowed you to kind of move on with your life and get to a new place and do this stuff." As it was coming out of my mouth, I went, "Oh, this is so horrible." I'm just adding to the pain that was there. He got up and he left and walked out. I can see his face, and that has haunted me ever since and has made me commit to being prepared in doing things the right way.

I use this story a lot actually when I teach workshops as an example because we're not two-way with all the listeners. I just know the one question you have is, did I go to the wedding the next day that's out there? The answer is no. I did not. I sent my gift, but I did not want to face not only him, but his whole family on both sides of that. By the way, he's gone on, been tremendously successful and done a lot of things. But I'll tell you that it takes one of those to just really sober you up and let you know how important this leadership role is, and especially these kinds of discussions.

Craig Irons:

Yeah. Meagan, what about you?

Meagan Aaron:

So mine has a similar theme of having to have the conversation to manage someone out of the organization for this situation, but made it most difficult was the first time I had that title of a formal leader, and I was asked to lead this individual because of hopes I could reignite or renewed some focus and energy for this individual to therefore complete those expectations that have been set about the roles and responsibilities. I did everything. So you've got to think about, "Well, did I do a textbook?" Of course, I did textbook. I'm the one that teaches the textbooks. It's always going to be to my most highest level of effort to ensure that I'm doing everything that every book possibly says I could do. Right.

Yet every time I came back, it was the data. It was the lack of performance. It was the lack of motivation, and it was all those checks. As I navigated through that conversation and had that final discussion, I really still for a good month or so, two things happened. One was I still felt like I failed. I failed because I didn't turn around the performance, and I was especially chosen because everyone had confidence in me that I could get it done. I was used to getting things done and coming out with a success, and that felt like a complete failure.

The second thing that really haunted me for a while was, well, that means that I no longer would be a leader. So then no longer being a leader was also something I kept in my brain that I wasn't good enough, I couldn't be one again. So I want to just share that those reactions are normal, natural reactions to it, a challenging conversation that you might feel. You might feel that I'm not good enough, or I can't do it again. Find those ways to close out and also determine what is the catalyst for that negative self-talk so that you can actionably shift it to a different positive intent. So those feelings are normal, natural. Give your itself a timeframe for, how can I turn this around? How can I get back into knowing that I've got the best of intentions to lead others?

Craig Irons:

Those are both extremely powerful stories. One last question for both of you. Meagan, we'll start with you. You shared a lot of really great actionable advice here today. What else would you tell especially a new leader? What else do they really need to know? And what advice would you give them to have success or at least some level of success when they have to have their next difficult conversation?

Meagan Aaron:

I like the word that you said, some level of success, because you may have this really big vision of sunshine, unicorn, and rainbows sprouting out from the end of the discussion like the end of a Disney movie. That may not be the case. So set realistic expectations for your performance of doing all the things that we've shared with you today. If you take at least one to two of those key takeaways, which was definitely the preparation piece and active listening, if you can take those two and deploy those strategies, you will have increments of success.

As we started off this conversation talking about the comfort versus the confidence, the more that you then apply those and add new ones, as you find your own version of what it looks like to lead and to conduct a challenging conversation, you can find that you may even relabel the names of these types of conversations or remove the challenge and find them as this is a really good opportunity conversation I want to have. There may be some challenging parts to it, but I'm going to even reframe how I labeled the conversation as well.

Craig Irons:

John, what else would you tell a new leader?

John Verdone:

Meagan did a wonderful job. I was making some notes, and I was going to kind of go, I think, the same direction with, look, it's not going to go perfectly. You're going to make mistakes. You're going to feel bad. So don't beat yourself up too much. Learn from it and go forward. But since she did that so articulately, I'm going to go a different with it and say that while we've talked about how to do this successfully, we've given some advice, some suggestions, what I need everybody to really understand is that this is a part of your job as a leader, and it's not optional. If you're not having these discussions, then you are not really fulfilling the role that a leader has in an organization. If we didn't have these tough situations to face, we wouldn't need as many leaders in organizations, right? It would be a simpler, easier job.

So don't take anything that we've said and say, "Oh well, I don't know that I can do all of that, or I don't know if I can do it as well as they were describing." The fact of the matter is you need to have the courage and understand it's part of your obligation and that ultimately in the long run, it'll help everybody involved and I just encourage everyone as leaders to take every opportunity to get stronger and better and learn and grow, but absolutely faces issues. It's a really important thing for you to be able to do.

Craig Irons:

What a fantastic conversation this has been. John Verdone, senior consultant at DDI, Meagan Aaron, managing consultant at DDI, thank you both so much for being with us today.

John Verdone:

Thanks for having us.

Meagan Aaron:

Thank you.

Craig Irons:

If you enjoyed this episode of the Leadership 480 Podcast, let me remind you to please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. If you're already a subscriber, we invite you to subscribe again on all the platforms and devices you use. Please rate us as well to let us know how we're doing. Be sure to tell your friends and colleagues about this podcast and invite them to subscribe. My name is Craig Irons, reminding you to make every moment of leadership count.

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