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Photo credit: J.E. Theoriot via Flick/Creative Commons

One of my favorite TV shows is Kitchen Nightmares with chef Gordon Ramsay. I love it because Ramsay exposes the toxic organizational dynamics behind the failing restaurant that he comes to redeem. Inevitably, Ramsay has to have a tough conversation with the owner/chef/manager in which he tells them the truth about their poor leadership, mediocre menu, and bland food. Usually the staff is waiting in the wings, fearfully and hopefully, anxious for Ramsay to deliver the news that they have been unable to communicate to their boss.

Though Ramsay is blunt and hard hitting, he also delivers the message with hope and the promise to get the restaurant back on track. Like any good consultant, he knows how to have crucial conversations.

Thoughts from the Front Lines

As organizational consultants we frequently have similar hard conversations with our clients. We have learned that this approach is a rare and highly appreciated experience for most. We find few organizations where hard conversations occur on a regular basis.

Whatever the reason, this is an absolutely essential skill that is remarkably absent in today’s culture. Even people with considerable power — owners, CEOs, board chairs — are often reluctant to have the tough talks that are required for them to achieve the outcomes they desire.

As a result, people don’t get the feedback they need to improve their performance. They stay in positions for years doing work that doesn’t engage or challenge them. Those who care about excellence move on. Cumbersome systems and processes remain in place long past their usefulness. Mediocrity goes unchallenged and becomes the norm, masquerading as excellence in the company’s public facing materials.

Practicing the Truth

Like any skill, the ability to have hard conversations needs to be practiced. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. And, importantly, the more you do it, the more skilled you become.

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Photo Credit: Porsche Brosseau via Flickr/Creative Commons

You all have undoubtedly experienced a tough conversation that is awkward, hurtful, emotional, and even damaging. Often these discussions occur because the people involved have waited too long to have it out of fear of hurting feelings or damaging the relationship. It is only when they’ve reached a point of being fed up and even angry that they finally say what needed to be said long ago. This negative filter results in a conversation that becomes needlessly adversarial or even disrespectful.

Crucial conversations don’t have to be this way. When you learn to do them well, you don’t have to put them off until you’ve reached a breaking point. Instead, you can use them to create positive outcomes, just like Chef Ramsay.

Here’s how

Prepare. Think carefully about the message you want to deliver. It might help to write down your main points.

Be specific. Avoid generalities and exaggerating. It is rarely useful to use the words “never” and “always.” (E.G. you are never on time or you always look like you are falling asleep in meetings.) Go over what you want to say with someone else who you trust to give you good feedback.

Start from empathy. Your motivation should start from the idea that you want the person to reach their full potential. Put yourself in their place. How can you best deliver the message in a way that they can hear it and see a positive result? What is important to them?

Time it well. Be sure to give yourself enough time to talk it through. Find a place that is private. Make sure the other person is in a state of mind to receive the message.

End on a hopeful note. Make sure the person understands the positive steps that can be taken to move forward.

I recently spoke with a business owner who had to fire a very likeable colleague who had been with the company for 15 years. Of course, she dreaded the upcoming conversation.

But to her relief, in the end, the person thanked her for doing what had to be done. He had realized that he was not in the right job and failing the company by his inability to step up to new responsibilities that were required. They were able to part respectfully.

You don’t need to call Gordon Ramsey to have a tough conversation. Develop your skill and practice it regularly. Before long, it will come naturally and gracefully.

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