Leading Difficult Conversations

The purpose of a difficult conversation is to honestly address a colleague’s performance, behaviour or relationships, so that you can help them improve. Done well, it is a timely, professional and a kind conversation, which provides an opportunity for reflection and impetus for changed behaviour.

As I wrote in my series on confidence, school leaders cannot avoid having difficult conversations. And after many years as an education leader, I think the truth is that:

When I have the conversation early (as soon as we detect a problem) then my colleague is very likely to improve, and it only takes a nudge of support from leaders to help them achieve that shift.

When I have the conversation after a delay (perhaps because we procrastinated) then my colleague may improve, but it will take a significant chunk of support to structure that behaviour change, time that could be spent much more usefully supporting children.

When I have the conversation after a longer pattern of things not being right, then there is much less chance that my colleague will improve because behaviour patterns are ingrained, and it will take much more time and energy motivating them to change and then to build habits. The leaders supporting them may become demotivated as they sense their time could be used more effectively elsewhere.

And the deeper truth is that our colleagues sense that when we catch things early, and talk about the problem quickly, we have our colleagues best interests at heart. They sense we want them to improve. But when we leave it too late, we know the hard work and effort it will take both for our colleague to change and for us to support. They sense we are less committed to helping them improve.

This is the irony of challenging conversations: by dealing with things quickly, it is actually is a much easier conversation, which creates much more likely chance of success for my colleague. By leaving things late, it becomes a more high stakes conversation, with less chance of success.

Good teams cannot function where we do not bring have high expectations for our behaviour and performance. Where there is a fear of conflict and healthy challenge there will be an absence of trust. These are the two foundations of the pyramid for Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. In other words, the best teams must embrace challenge when things are not right.

There are only really three things you need to know about leading difficult conversations:
Why to do it?  
When to do it? (and when not to), and
How to do it?

But first let’s get those three words out of the way: Leading … Difficult … Conversations.

Leading – you are leading – this is more like highly structured coaching than a to-and-fro conversation. And while it’s important to listen to your colleague, it is you who has made the decision that the WHY of the meeting trumps the awkwardness of having it in the first place. You called the meeting so you need to run it well.

Difficult – difficult for whom? You are probably the one wringing your hands, facing the angst, dealing with the ‘should we or shouldn’t we’ feeling. Try to get out of your own way, make it less about you and more about your colleague.

Conversations – a conversation is two-way. Yes, you will sense where you need to get to, but this needs to be an authentic dialogue, not a token nod to participation. Provide space for a genuine response, listen for the truth.

Here are 10 things I’ve learnt which help me lead difficult conversations:

1. It is a great way to reset expectationsChallenging conversations are good because they help set expectations – they tell people what you want. It’s a chance to be more clear about our expectations than we have been up to now. Because this is a gilt-edged opportunity to reset, think carefully about the language that you will use. You may introduce with, ‘this is what our school is about… this is how I want people to work together… this is how I expect children to be spoken to.’ It doesn’t presuppose what’s happened, but it does frame the whole conversation with ‘this is what I want our school to be like’.

We’re often selective with our values, and shirk the more challenging ones. For example, many church schools are big on: “be humble, gentle, patient, bearing with one another in love,” but forget: “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him.”  If the strapline on my website says, ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full,’ (John 10:10), then we need to remember that if we don’t speak the truth in love, if we don’t give people accurate feedback with kindness, how will any of us ever get any better?

2. Know the WHY – Earlier in my career I spent too much time thinking that modelling and describing the right behaviours would be enough. I assumed everyone would get it by osmosis. It prevented me from having enough of these conversations. What gets in the way of us having them? Time pressures? The expected emotional impact? Fear of getting it wrong? The feeling that it’s someone else’s responsibility? Knowing I’ll be out of my comfort zone? My lack of knowledge of the HR process to follow?

Sometimes we just need to get on and eat the frog. If not now then when, if not me then who? I cannot remember a conversation I’ve had that I regretted. Only one I wish I’d had earlier.

3. Know the WHEN – Schools are not helpful environments: the noise, the permanent state of rush, the few really quiet places to talk and listen. Yet often the WHEN is right now – short corridor chats can fix things in the moment, meaning one less job at the end of the day. And yet the end of the day is precisely when the more tricky discussions need to happen. A 3.30pm discussion gives colleagues the dignity for any emotion without having to return to class. A Friday conversation gives time to reflect over the weekend.

4. Know the HOW – know how to prepare, understand feedback, take notes, listen well, follow up.

5. Prepare for and structure the conversation – What is the desired outcome? How will you introduce the meeting? What evidence do you need to support you? How direct will you be?

In her book Successful Difficult Conversations In School, Sonia Gill uses the acronym STORM to help provide a structure:

State the issue
Their side
Move and follow up.

Always have several potential solutions and remain flexible. Anticipate and prepare for challenges – they will come. Know how you’ll close the conversation.

Phoning a friend prior to the meeting can help – remember that HR, and other experienced colleagues are on hand. A ‘no-names’ call to an expert can really help bring wisdom and confidence to settle the nerves.

Finally, rehearse. I talk to myself as I drive, attracting odd looks at traffic lights.

6. Write the words, then say the words – Why do I write down what I am going to say and then read it out, slowly? Firstly, it disciplines me to actually say the words that I know I will find uncomfortable to say. I also think that there is something which is going on in the room when your colleague realises that you are reading out these words and not just saying them – it means that you have given this a great deal of thought. The accuracy and economy of the words used will add gravity. It is part of the feedback process, and this tells your colleague that their professionalism is being taken seriously. As such the process of note-taking is a reassurance both for the giver and the receiver and that we mean business. The time you spend on getting the words right will help your colleague cut through any defensiveness or barriers which may be holding them back. Done constructively, it should also articulate for them how you see them at their best, and your confidence in their ability to improve.

So, pre-meeting notes are helpful, but remember they are not set in stone. While you have thought long and hard about each word, they are not a foregone conclusion. You are weighing these words together to check their validity. Listen to your colleague, then echo or paraphrase what you think your colleague is saying and check whether you have this right. Then add or rewrite notes during the meeting, and again check whether you have a shared understanding or partial agreement. These steps are a vital element in a genuine dialogue.

7. Understand the power of feedback – Remember that mostly what you are doing is presenting feedback from others: emails from parents, comments from governors, observations from staff, learning walk observations, pupil voice.

These are not your words. You are simply the lens through which you help your colleague see their situation from a new perspective. This is crucial to how they receive these words. As the brilliant book Thanks for the Feedback reminds us, “Many management books focus attention on how to give feedback… but what is actually more important is how to receive feedback.” Instead of over-worrying about the words you’ll say, think how they will land.

Consider the other person. Imagine them at their best. Describe when you saw this. What is it they are not doing, but which you have seen them do at their best? How can you help them regain that confidence?

Tell them how their behaviour/performance makes you feel – while depersonalising is appropriate at points in the conversation, there is often a time to let them know how their words and their actions make you and your colleagues feel.

8. Why is a coaching style more effective? Because when we listen more – we get to the truth more quickly. Because it respects the skills and experience of colleagues. Because it creates greater long-term commitment. Because incisive questions provoke deeper thinking – which get to the cause not the symptom of an issue.

In the best conversations we listen intently, ask questions authentically, look long term, clarify thinking, strengthen habits, all of which generates change.

If your style is to be direct, then put yourself in their shoes and listen to their perspective.
If your style is to be softer, then be absolutely clear about the outcome needed, write down exactly what you are going to say and read it out.

9. Follow up after the meeting this is a challenging meeting so why should we expect that everything will be agreed perfectly? This is both unlikely and unrealistic, so if we arrive at these meetings hoping for perfect alignment, we are likely to be disappointed. Since further thinking takes place after the meeting following honest reflection, it is helpful to allow colleagues the dignity of more time and the opportunity to return, having thought on what you have said. This helps build long term trust in your staff team. Some leaders suggest separating the conversation into two parts – firstly the professional conversation, and then a personal check in, which allows this to happen.

A brief email politely summarising the essentials of the conversation both documents the meeting and sets a timeline for whatever plan will in place to support them to improve. Decide in the meeting who will monitor, which should be separate from the person who will assess progress next time you meet. Check this is a good match. Finally, ask yourself have you been crystal clear about what they need to do? Ask them to describe what that is so there is no misunderstanding.

10. It’s about building culture While you will remain confidential, colleagues often offload and inevitably others find out that a conversation has happened. You will know this is happening because of an atmosphere, or where things will be said or unsaid over the days and weeks afterwards. While it can feel awkward to feel talked about, and while other colleagues may commiserate in public, usually in private they are happy that you don’t shirk things that are tricky. Your reputation will grow as people realise that you are prepared to take on more difficult conversations, but that you always remain professional, and don’t discuss it with others.

There’s no getting round these conversations, so recognise that as a leader you will have them, and they will be part of the culture that you set in your organisation. When you and your team lead difficult conversations well, with honesty, compassion and kindness, trust will grow.

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