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Employee Leadership: Difficult Conversations

Who has felt the pressure to have a difficult conversation with a team member lately? Have you had something you needed to talk to your veterinary technician about, the one who is underperforming and needing some words of clarity on expectations? Has your associate veterinarian not held up the standards and expectations of the practice as you have communicated, and you need to address that opportunity? Has your practice partner frustrated you with some of his or her repeated actions and you need to visit about them? 

I speak on this routinely because no one ever taught us how to have a difficult conversation. We have these without good guidance, wise experience, poor discernment, and inadvertent motives. Conversations that are difficult to have often ended in complete devastating failure where cutting words said are like nails in a coffin. And we conduct the conversation poorly—no one leaves the conversation feeling good about it, likely even worse than before it took place. Have you ever done this? I sure have! A good number of times! 

Outside of a tremendous parent or coach, or a mentor wading in the trenches with you, no one ever taught us how to have conversations like these. And if you haven’t experienced any of these models, then one must take it upon themselves to study up on how to engage in conversations like these. The key is to not avoid these conversations because if you do, the future will look like the past, and minimal if any progress forward will be made. Matter of fact, one will likely take a few steps back, rather than forward, by avoiding a difficult conversation. And in the avoidance, mediocrity begins to grab hold. Even more importantly, those who master the art of difficult conversations will enjoy greater success by virtually whatever tangible or intangible data point one wants to measure.

Here are eight key points to execute when carrying out difficult conversations, all of which I have observed, absorbed, read, listened to, or learned the hard way. The top keys to having difficult conversations that help create improved worlds, rather than destroy them, are the following based on my experience: 

1. Show extreme grace. While you may hold great anger towards the other person, no one is perfect, including you, and you have messed up before as well. To extend grace to someone means to give courteous goodwill and respect. We often assume negative intent in many situations, but always give grace and assume positive intent by the person’s actions rather than the worst.

2. Be kind like your momma and grandma always taught you. Show empathy by putting yourself in the other person’s shoes in order to better understand the difficulties this person may be having or living with. If we all lived according to what our mommas and grandmas taught us more often, I’m certain our world could almost be as perfect as possible. Frustration often removes kindness from our voice, so dig deep to avoid frustration and reach for an emotion of gratitude that shows you appreciate all the good this person does each day, beyond where your expectations may not be being met.

3. Show humility and relatability. Deflect inward towards your soul and reflect to this person how you have messed up the same thing over the years. This shows humility, and that you are human, and your relatability. None of us are perfect. Not conveying mistakes you have made before, or your responsibility in the current issue, will make for a worthless conversation in said person’s eyes, leaving him or her thinking, “He (or she) can’t even accept his own faults, how can he expect me to accept mine?” Take responsibility for your part. 

4. Apologize for your part. Apologize for your lack of clarity or for not talking to said person sooner, or for your excessive firmness or candor, maybe even anger shown. Apologize for your lack of ability in having a difficult conversation. Make some form of apology to show you not only have a vested interest, but you likely aren’t “100 percent innocent.” It is my experience in many difficult conversations I have had or have moderated that not everyone is 100 percent innocent. 

5. Forget “I’m going to teach them a lesson!” Lose this lesson-teaching mode of thinking, because when a human has this as his or her objective, it teaches no one but still leaves bitterness and anger in the end. Instead, look to help. Look to help the person get better at the job rather than point a finger. Helping someone get better at what he or she does will teach a lesson that you care about them as a person and their success at work and life. They learn you are trying to build them up, not tear them down. 

6. Don’t wait too long. The No. 1 rule broken in having difficult conversations we are all guilty of is waiting too long or, worse yet, never having the difficult conversation. It takes intention, energy, and ability to have difficult conversations. We avoid them all the time. And we wait to have them because those conversations require us to suffer. In the end, we often just avoid them because we have to suffer. When you do have the conversation, don’t do it behind any keyboard or screen! Do it face to face as that usually helps keep dangerous words from flying out of your mouth versus hiding behind a keyboard and typing. Courage usually goes destructive rather than constructive from behind a keyboard! 

7. Consider “wearing different hats.” Especially if the conversation involves a team member, client, or student. If there is a direct answer, wear the “business owner hat,” but if you truly care for this person, maybe you should also wear the “caring friend hat” or “mentor hat” or “dad hat.” Do this as you preface conversations because when dealing with people, they need to know from which “perspective” you are coming from. 

8. Lastly, start with this important piece of advice. Any time you are going to have a difficult conversation, and know it could get heated or has the potential to “turn south,” before anyone gets started, say this: “We are going to have a difficult conversation, in which you may not like parts of it or may disagree, but we are going to do this and everyone is going to remain calm, cool, collected, and no one is going to get upset, or upset and walk out and leave.” 

The first time I did this, over five years ago, was in a very difficult conversation I had with a client. I won’t go into details, but it worked perfectly and this person is still a client today. I have recently said this two times in just the last week as well, and I promise you it helps and works— every single time. 

All that being said, I still mire up difficult conversations and am not perfect at it. But what I can tell you, if you intentionally work on these eight objectives every single time, and you practice, prepare and apply focus to these eight points every time, I promise, you will get better at it. Believe me, I have more than one former and current employee, a wife, and a kid who would tell you I have messed it up, but understand, we can all get better at it! 

Remember, words create worlds. Words determine direction, invite resistance, or open hearts. Words convince or deceive, cut, or heal. Words inspire or discourage, make work difficult, or enjoyable. Words elevate your status. The people around you need you to have the ability to have difficult conversations to help them get better at work and in life. May you be blessed with intense discernment in those conversations! 


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