A LEADER’S ability to successfully conduct difficult conversations with subordinates, peers or superiors can make the difference between success and failure — both for the leader and the organisation.

A difficult conversation typically suggests that one party has to deliver news that is potentially unwelcome to the other.

It is discomforting, can erode the listener’s sense of worth and, in the Asian context, can result in loss of face.

It may be something as simple as telling your subordinate that the presentation he has just made was not up to the mark, or a more serious situation where someone on your team who has worked with you for over 10 years has to be made redundant.

Be prepared

Irrespective of the situation, it always pays to be prepared for a difficult conversation.

Think through all the possible defences, denials and counter accusations the individual might react with when faced with what he assumes is an unfair assessment of the situation.

Knowing all the facts and the social style of the person you are interacting with will help you deal with him effectively.

You cannot predict his reactions entirely, but you can anticipate them and be emotionally ready.

Setting very specific and pragmatic goals for the conversation will help you measure your success.

Establish the situation

Explain the facts that clearly establish the situation. There is no point in beating around the bush.

The entire approach has to be non-judgmental and must demonstrate the value of having the conversation despite the obvious risk associated with it.

The objective is to collaborate towards finding a mutually acceptable solution to an existing problem.

Listen well

Listen not only to what the person is saying but what he is feeling.

To create clarity and to let him know you are genuinely listening, summarise what he is telling you — and ask him to do the same.

In fact, listen to his version of the story first before sharing yours, and always demonstrate you are genuinely interested in hearing his version.

More often than not, difficult conversations are emotional, and you need to get a good appreciation of the underlying issues that drive the emotions.

Demonstrate empathy

A leader must be able to put himself in the other person’s shoes and understand both the thoughts and the associated feelings in a very sincere and selfless way.

Showing empathy and understanding will lead to the development of mutual trust, which enables individuals to open up their minds and hearts and derive all the possible benefits to help move them towards their goals.

Create positive energy

Every difficult conversation leads to changes in behaviour.

Leaders create a sense of optimism that is essential in moving people towards action. Positive energy is created by positive talk that works both on the conscious and subconscious level.

A good leader infuses people with positive energy so they look forward to the behaviour changes that they will need to make and the actions they are going to take to achieve their goals.

Reframe perspectives

Either your world is perfect or it isn’t. It all depends on your perspective, the way you look at things.

Help the individual reframe his perspective — from one of imperfection to one that sees possibilities for perfection.

Build trust

Treat a difficult conversation as an opportunity to enhance trust.

As a leader, you need to help open the individual’s mind to see possibilities, to “get out of the self-imposed limitations” and perceive solutions.

The leader’s credibility (words), reliability (actions) and likeability (emotions) will make this transition possible.

Change behaviour

You cannot change people; you can only change their behaviour. And change starts with self-awareness.

As a leader, you can help your subordinates to understand themselves better — their strengths and weaknesses, what works well and what does not in relation to the difficult situation.

Once the awareness is achieved, it changes their attitude towards themselves, their colleagues and the business itself.

Once an attitudinal shift happens, it invariably results in changes in behaviour that makes it then possible for them to commit to action.

Commit to action

Every difficult conversation must lead to action. But the action has to be focused on moving individuals towards set goals.

People cannot and will not commit to action without clarity of thought.

Clear thinking is required to generate momentum — which is what the leader provides through the process of the difficult conversation that drives the commitment to action.

Create structure

Structure is the process of creating boundaries and standards around what is being done.

It is important because it creates a pattern to follow and allows others around to know what is expected within that structure.

Leaders know that without a structure, their people lapse into behaviours that are inconsistent with set goals.

Every tough conversation is an opportunity for leaders to change the way their people think.

Right thoughts ensure clear thinking, which is visible through actions. These are driven by behaviours that will produce the desired outcomes.