Challenging conversation? Keep it honest.

Alison Best




Yesterday evening my sister and my mum (separately) described to me the ‘difficult’ conversation they had had about the proposed sleeping arrangements for our upcoming family holiday.  (Note: ‘Best’ family holidays could win competitions for acts of passive aggression).   What they each told me about their feelings was not what they had told each other.  

I am almost sure it is not just my family where – when there are difficult issues to discuss – honesty is compromised... It’s not out of malice, or with intent to deceive.  Often our economy with the truth is simply intended to avoid confrontation, or prevent upset or offence.  It is a familiar tactic, replicated throughout the working world. 

In offices across the country, managers will have frank and open conversations – perhaps even a moan to HR - about (rather than with) their ‘problem’ employees.  In these conversations they express their honest views (disappointment, frustration, criticism, annoyance…).  The choice of language and tone may, often, not be what they’d want the employee in question to hear.

And the message then needs to be conveyed to the employee concerned.  Often, necessarily, the message is reframed and remodelled for that purpose.  A manager reformulates the communication to take account of the likely feelings and reaction of the recipient.  These challenging conversations require thought, preparation and emotional intelligence.  And I have often talked to leaders about how to do it well, to prevent someone feeling attacked and defensive. 

But it struck me yesterday how vital it is that this reframing doesn’t make the communication so completely different that it becomes dishonest:

  • If you're not going to give an employee a development opportunity because you think they are not ready for it – don’t tell them it’s about their workload or availability...
  • If you're taking a key account/client/project from someone because they’re not meeting your expectations, don’t tell them it’s because you want their skills focussed on something else...
  • If a report has had to be re-written because they got it wrong – don’t tell them you made some ‘stylistic’ changes… 
  • If there’s been a complaint about their conduct, don’t tell them you’re moving them to another desk/team to expand their breadth of knowledge of the business …

(And if you think someone really merits an "improvement required" appraisal grading - don't give them a "meets requirements" instead.)

If the essential truth of the situation is lost in your intention to soften the blow… it impacts negatively on trust.  Trust is vital.  People can see through the inauthentic.  They sense it.  It hampers development and personal growth.  It gets in the way of future communication, real connection and strong relationships (at work or at home).  And you won't find out their real perspective on your decisions.  

**Honest doesn’t mean brutal.  An honest message can be respectfully, empathically, even kindly, communicated with a view to bringing about the change or improvement needed.  

A quick test – if you compare your ‘raw’ message against the conversation you actually had with the employee – are you happy it was, essentially, an honest conversation?  If not, are you okay with that?