Whether it’s giving bad news, challenging someone’s behaviour or telling them their work isn’t up to scratch, it is never easy to deliver difficult messages. Confrontation is a topic delegates ask me about all the time.
John Heron has a model (below) that can help us understand why this is the case and guide us on how to handle it well.
- What if the other person doesn’t understand?
- What if they get defensive or angry?
- What if they refuse to cooperate?
- What if they get emotional?
- What if they get angry with you?
…and so on. We can work on these in advance by ensuring we have prepared ourselves well and have strategies in place for dealing with potential difficulties. (Face to Face in the Workplace can help here)
The second set of anxieties may be subconscious, but they are still affecting you. Your brain loves making connections, so as soon as you start thinking about the difficult message you need to deliver, your brain is rummaging through its archives looking for connections, such as:
- How it went pear shaped last time you tried something similar
- How upset you were when someone gave you bad news
- Memories of colleagues getting in a state when they were given bad news.
These are all past anxieties. Logically, there is no reason for them to have a bearing on the current situation, but without realising it, the swirling mass of worry in your brain contains both past and present anxieties.
Try and separate the two so that you are aware of your brain’s ‘helpfulness’ making things worse than they actually are. For every fear or concern, look for the source. Ask yourself where it has come from, what you can learn from it and if it is relevant now. If you need help with this, read up on Carol Dweck’s work on mindset.
Anxiety distorts your behaviour
Few of us enjoy delivering bad news, so some anxiety is normal. We are aiming to minimise it as much as we can so that it doesn’t get in the way of delivering an effective message. There are two ways that anxiety can affect our performance.
The first is pussyfooting, when we try to bury the message with fluff or going round in circles. For example:
“Can I have a word? Oh, that jumper is a lovely colour. Yes, I wanted to talk about er…. Have you booked your holiday yet? Yes, I wanted to mention how you handled that customer… Wasn’t he awful? Did that stationery order arrive?”
You might think you are softening the blow, but it’s a safe bet that the other person, as yet, has not got a clue what you want to say and their mind is probably already planning how they can escape from your waffle. Your message is weak and ineffective.
The other way that anxiety distorts our behaviour is clobbering. We recognise that we’re not looking forward to the conversation, so we say it bluntly, say it fast, and get it over and done with. This shows no consideration for the receiver of the message, who probably isn’t sure what has hit them – but they know something has. Ultimately, this is selfish because you’ve made it all about your needs.
Getting it Right
Once we are aware of the impact of our anxieties, we can take steps to limit their disruption, such as:
- Planning to make sure our message is clear
- Dealing with our own mindset
- Knowing the outcome we are working towards
- Thinking it through from the other person’s perspective
Heron describes our goal – and this is one of my favourite quotes – as ‘Telling the truth without compromise and with love.’ It’s beautifully expressed because it so neatly sums up the two aspects of the job: being firm and clear without diluting the message, and taking responsibility for our impact on another person.
When the message lands
Lastly, let’s not forget that the other person, like you, has anxieties past and present to deal with. Unlike you, they won’t have had the opportunity to think through how to handle the conversation. All their anxieties will arrive like a tornado. They may well be in shock. They might exhibit fight or flight, have an emotional outburst or get defensive.
When this happens, your own anxieties are prodded with a big stick. As they rear their ugly head you could find yourself wanting to do the same; wanting to run away or snap back. Don’t. You need to allow them space to come to terms with the message. You might allow some silence or ask if they have any questions. Be attentive and be present until the storm has passed. Your manner needs to remain in the territory of ‘Without compromise and with love’. It’s the least you can do.
Learning to handle confrontation well
None of this is easy. This model is an overview that requires advanced interpersonal skills to carry it out effectively. Self awareness is also key. Do you know if you are getting your tone right, or do you sound as if you are pussyfooting or clobbering? This is one area where elearning will never trump face to face learning. It’s only by implementing knowledge, practicing and getting thoughtful feedback that you can know how you are doing.
If your people could benefit from developing their interpersonal skills, I’m always happy to talk through options. Get in touch.
0845 5197 571 (local rate)
John Heron, Six Category Intervention Analysis
Human Potential Resource Group 1989