Sunday, March 9, 2014

Four Rules for Difficult Conversations

by Mike Nitzel, Principal
Thomas Jefferson Elementary
Rock Island-Milan (IL) Dist. 41
Milan, IL 

Difficult conversations are a part of every leader’s responsibilities.  However, difficult conversations need not be confrontational and the goal every difficult conversation should be to enhance relationships and/or improve outcomes.  The following four rules can help you achieve these goals.

1)   Be cognizant of timing. Not every difficult conversation needs to be had immediately after a particular incident.  Sometimes time is needed, particularly if emotions are involved, to remove some of the emotion and allow cooler heads to prevail.  Your own professional judgment and knowledge of your staff will help you determine when to hold your conversation. 

2)   Be compassionately honest. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, brutal honesty is usually more brutal than it is honest.  Say what you have to day, but utilize your compassion.  To do otherwise will damage relationships in the long run.  Remember, people may not remember what you said or what you did but they’ll certainly remember how you made them feel.  This is never more important than in difficult conversations. And if you are confronted with emotion, meet it with reason.  Reason and compassion are not mutually exclusive.   

3)   Think Win-Win.  Stephen Covey is right on the money on this one.  When dealing with a difficult conversation, you’re usually dealing with a situation in which someone has not met your expectations or the expectations of your organization.  As a leader, it is your job to find common ground with those who work with you that will allow both parties to walk away with something in the win column.  Much of the time, people just want to be heard.  By giving them a respectful audience, you’ve provided them with a win.  You win when you get an agreement that they will respect your expectations or that of the organization.

4)   Walk away with common understandings. Ambiguity and uncertainly will do nothing but breed additional problems.  Come away from your difficult conversation by making sure that both of you understand what each can expect from the other.  As the leader, sometimes those understandings must be imposed by you.  But those are likely few and far between.  By reaching mutual understandings after a conflict, future problems can be minimized. 

These are just four overarching rules that I follow when dealing with difficult conversations.  I’m sure you have others.  I would love to hear them.  Please feel free to comment on this post and, as always, thank you for taking time out of your busy lives to read this.  I genuinely appreciate it.

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