The No. 1 Mistake People Make When Handling Tough Conversations

I hardly have to tell you that the role of a leader is an important one. You’re responsible for guiding and motivating your team to achieve its goals, and when things don’t go right, you’re the one who needs to offer guidance and constructive criticism. Doing that can be tense and awkward for some people, but when you’re able to effectively communicate what needs to improve, these conversations can be easier and more helpful for everyone involved.

When it comes time to prepare for these conversations, there are a lot of things to consider. You’ll want to be specific in your feedback so that everyone knows exactly what happened, what needs to change, and how. You should consider your team members’ personalities and how they respond best to challenging situations.

Too often, though, leaders ignore these important considerations and worry instead about their own performance. And that is the single biggest mistake they can make.

Many leaders want to make a strong impression, so they write out what they want to say and enter the conversation with a script. Sure, everyone wants to feel ready for a tough situation, but there’s a big difference between preparing and performing.

If you want to be the kind of confident leader who can handle tough conversations well and inspire your team to keep going, you’ll need to ditch the script. Here’s why:

1. You can end up derailing your self-confidence.

Have you ever had a meeting where you were supposed to give a presentation and just drew a complete blank? I know I have. Many people create scripts to avoid this very situation, but as it turns out, scripts create that scenario more often than they prevent it. Think about it: If you’ve memorized a script and forget a sentence, how do you feel? What if you’ve missed an important point? What if you forget more?

Trying to stick to a script makes you feel more and more flustered with each word you forget, and then you just spiral. It destroys your confidence because you’re trying to rely on a piece of paper and not on yourself. Instead, spend your preparation time developing your ideas and rely on yourself and your knowledge of those ideas in your meeting.

2. You probably won’t sound like your authentic self.

I remember when “Frozen” came out and my kids were very into all things “Frozen” — dolls, games, accessories, you name it. One toy of theirs would sing the same part of “Let It Go” over and over again. Was it OK to hear it repeatedly for the first couple of days? Of course. That song is a classic. But after a while, hearing the same things again and again can wear on you — and your team feels the same way about your scripted meetings.

These people work with you day in and day out. They know how you speak normally, and they can tell when you’re reading from a script and trying to check all the boxes to say the right things. Rather than trying to pass yourself off as some amazing orator, just go out and be yourself. You’ll be much more comfortable and able to elaborate on problems in your own language: one that your team will recognize.

3. You can’t predict surprises.

If there’s anything I’ve learned over the years, it’s that tough conversations never go how I expect them to. There could be personal issues in the mix that you don’t know about, or maybe someone was given incorrect information to start with that led to a mistake. You never know what information is going to come up during these conversations that can totally change your viewpoint.

A script renders you totally useless when circumstances change — and they almost always will. While it’s true that you can’t prepare for everything, you can mentally prepare yourself in a way that’s flexible and leaves room for new ideas and information.

4. Your focus should be your team, not yourself.

Leaders should be supporters and helpers to their teams, not dictators. Scripts are inherently self-serving because they totally ignore the viewpoints of others. When you rely on a script, it’s about “making sure that my team understands my plan to reach my goals,” no matter how many times you might use the words “we,” “us,” and “our.”

While you do need to be decisive as a leader, you’ll do your team a disservice by focusing exclusively on methods and solutions that you identified alone. Monologues can be scripted; conversations can’t be.

Preparation, on the other hand, encourages conversation. When entering a tough conversation, you should be familiar with the situation — what happened, why, and who was involved — but you shouldn’t immediately assert how you think it should be fixed.

Instead, have an open conversation with the right people to find the best resolution. When you’re prepared and understand how the issue came about, everyone is much more likely to have a positive experience than if you just read your solution out loud to them.

Even the best leaders struggle to have difficult conversations with their teams. It’s only natural to try to prepare what you want to say to avoid an awkward situation, but in many cases, scripts do more harm than good. Rather than spending time writing a script that covers all the bases in an eloquent way, prepare by learning everything you can about the issue and having a genuine conversation with those involved.

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