Having difficult conversations — such as delivering bad news or sharing constructive feedback — is a necessary reality of being a manager and leader. These conversations can be highly productive but rarely happen without some level of anxiety or emotion.
What does it mean to be having hard conversations now, in the times of Covid-19? From what I’m hearing from clients, the sheer volume of those hard conversations is on the rise in unprecedented ways that match these unprecedented times. Leaders are having to deliver news company-wide about business challenges resulting from the pandemic. Some are handling layoffs at scale. A client of mine here in the Bay Area just had to let go of 250 very talented individuals last week. They were set loose at a time when hiring freezes are happening across many industries. Some managers and leaders are delivering news about the health of co-workers.
What makes it all the more challenging is that our collective nerves are on edge in this climate of uncertainty, anxiety and grief. These conversations are also happening remotely, adding yet another layer of complexity.
I’ve been coaching new managers and executives on their most difficult conversations for more than 20 years. As everyone fast-tracks their learning on what’s been referred to as “the world’s largest work from home experiment,” I wanted to share a few applicable skills to handle the types of hard conversations that might be coming up for you now.
Dial-up The Empathy, For Yourself Too
Above all, having difficult conversations during these anxious times requires empathy. Pulling our humanity to the forefront makes for connections, and strong connection with both ourselves and the person we’re talking to is paramount.
Dial up the empathy on every level as you prepare for a tough conversation; that starts with having empathy for yourself, the deliverer of bad news. It can’t be easy. Allow your own emotions about the content of what you’re about to pass on to settle, and give yourself adequate time to process and prepare.
Typically I see leaders doing 1 of 2 things in these moments. Some take on, feel guilty about, or share the burden of other people’s emotions, which can complicate the message and leave them feeling drained. Others stick to facts-based messages, but that can lack warmth or concern for the person on the other side. Both sides of this coin are your own responses to the stress of the situation, so it’s important to ground yourself and not overly lean into one or the other.
More Communication Is Better
It goes without saying that putting off any of these critical conversations is not a choice right now. More communication is better. People need to know what’s going on. It can be tempting to avoid a difficult conversation, attempting to keep the peace and manage conflict aversion. But I encourage you to face these conversations head on. Knowledge, even bad news, no matter how strange sounding, provides stability. With knowledge people are able to move, plan, look for solutions, prepare. Not knowing, and guessing at what might be happening is far, far worse.
Deliver Effectively Despite Being Remote
Without the option for in-person conversations, these sensitive messages need to be crystal clear, direct and delivered live over video. Taking the time to do videos, or multiple videos shows your commitment to your people and strong leadership. It demonstrates that you want to connect on a visceral level on issues impacting people’s livelihoods, health and survival.
Your delivery skills are essential. Communicating remotely comes with an increased sense of distance between people. That means you need to work a little harder to come closer. Use excellent delivery, imagine people are in the room with you and really connect. People are impacted over 90% by the way a message is delivered, and 7% by the words themselves. Body language and facial expression is what we humans tend to trust.
To that end, once you have your message keyed up, rehearse it in front a mirror so you can see how it might land. Better yet, film yourself and watch. Sometimes we think we’re projecting an image that matches our intentions but it comes across very differently when we put our voices and gestures to words. We all have our resting “bitch face” for example. I certainly know I do, it’s not intentional, it’s just the way I look when I’m concentrating. I have to work on it consciously in coaching calls or training sessions so I don’t scare anyone with my intensity.
- Learn exactly where you need to look in order to be looking squarely at people with direct eye contact.
- Make sure you’re well lit (Avoid a window behind you. If you can’t face that window directly, shut the shade, and put a light source directly in front of your face)
- Sit your computer on a stack of books so you’re level with your viewers and not looking down at them.
- Watch your pace, don’t speak too quickly or do the opposite and use pregnant pauses that drag the communication down.
- Keep your feet on the ground to stay rooted, and use appropriate gestures for the space you’re speaking into – a small screen.
- Use more energy and more volume than you think you need.
Difficult conversations are hard enough under normal circumstances, but they’re particularly tough and necessary in this world wide health crisis. If there was ever a time to practice getting more effective at leading these conversations, this is it.
I hope these tips help you navigate these times. If you’re looking to go deeper, stay tuned for my online course Dread-Free Difficult Conversations, which goes live on Udemy next week. In the course, I address the broader set of skills and techniques managers need to overcome any discomfort and lead productive, beneficial conversations.
I wish you all good luck in these times and above all, good health.