FACING A DIFFICULT CONVERSATION: LISTEN FIRST

My wife was a practicing nurse in a physician’s office for many years. We often talked about how many doctors just didn’t seem to appreciate how nervous most of us get sitting as patients in a waiting room wondering if our latest symptom just might be the sign of something serious . While to a doctor we may be simply another patient, the upcoming encounter matters a great deal to us precisely because it is about us. So we are nervous and perhaps a little scared.

Managers face a similar situation on many occasions when they need to summon a subordinate to a one on one meeting where the topic will — or potentially will — involve criticism or disciplinary action. Most subordinates will suspect what might be coming and thus will be nervous — perhaps scared — and prepared to be defensive. Perhaps you as the boss will be nervous as well. What is communicated in the first few sentences of your exchange will go a long way towards determining if your desired outcome is met. So what do you do?

Over my years in these situations I discovered the power of listening first before delivering whatever final message I was considering. You might begin with a brief synopsis of what you have observed, heard, or experienced and then invite a response or explanation with an open-ended question;”tell me what happened”; “why did you respond as you did”; “how did you read the situation”? The key is to phrase your opening remarks in a way that communicates that you recognize there is always another side to things, that you have assumed nothing entirely as yet, and that you are truly open to hearing and considering what you are about to be told before passing final judgment.

Being able to offer some explanation in a reasonably non-emotional and non-defensive way invites a subordinate to join you in a dialog from which both of you stand to learn something. A true dialog also increases the chance that whatever criticism you may have to deliver, or disciplinary action you may have to take, will be acknowledged, absorbed, accepted, and acted upon.

Above all, do not avoid getting to the subject in your opening comments by engaging in meaningless small talk. Although that may make you temporarily more comfortable, it only confuses matters and leaves the subordinate wondering what this is really all about. Be direct and on subject but invite a response that you are prepared to consider seriously before drawing a final conclusion. In other words: LISTEN FIRST.

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