Have you ever had one of those conversations in which someone is saying nice things, and you just know there’s going to be a “but” in there? You can’t focus on the nice things because you are waiting for the axe to fall.
You can usually tell by the tone of someone’s voice—or their body language—that there is a “but” coming. And that means people can tell when you’re about to add the but too!
What would happen if you removed the word but from your vocabulary? I’ve attempted doing this for years and it isn’t easy. Mostly, when I’m about to say that word, I try substituting “and,” which works most of the time. I also substitute “though” or “yet” in certain situations. Try it for a day or a week and let me know how it works for you.
At work, the use of “but” is most sensitive during crucial conversations and performance discussions. These tend to be tense situations anyway and many managers make things worse by employing the “sandwich” approach. Say something nice, then the criticism / complaint, then something nice again—which is supposed to make people feel better. Yeah, how’s that working?
I had one boss who always used the sandwich approach. As soon as she started complimenting me, I knew something unpleasant was coming. And I truly resented the little “pick me up” at the end. Knowing how that always made me feel prompted me to find a better way. So I experimented a lot and developed a couple of effective ways to have crucial conversations.
Here are three tips for improving the quality and impact of your crucial conversations:
- Position the conversation up front. Let the person know “we need to have a difficult conversation about X, when is a good time for us to schedule that?” This provides a bit of a warning system, as well as an opportunity for the person to prepared mentally and emotionally for the conversation. Some people are good to go right now; others need time to collect themselves. Honor that.
- Be deliberate and intentional. Prepare yourself by thinking ahead about what you want to convey, including the words, your tone and your body language. Take the time you need to explain fully and accurately and make sure the other person is getting your message and its intent. I recommend writing out what you plan to say and spending some time editing to get it right, then reviewing it so you are completely familiar with your key points.
- Get right to the point. Why prolong the discomfort on both sides? When someone really beats around the bush in a critical conversation, it’s just worse. If you’ve done a good job of positioning and preparing, this will be a lot easier, and allow you to get to a solution or resolution much more quickly.
Like many things in working with other people, this may sound simple and it’s not always easy to pull off. It does take practice. And practice takes commitment. In the end, if you want to be a high impact leader who commands respect and maybe even admiration, its’ worth developing your skills around crucial conversations.
Try it next time and let me know how it works for you.