For more than 20 years, I’ve taught employees how to deliver tough messages. As an example, I typically use the case of an employee who thinks a coworker is a slacker. I ask the group, “Which of the following would be the best way to open the conversation?”
Option A: “You know, I’ve noticed you aren’t doing your fair share of the work. I’d like to talk to you about some ideas I have for how to help you pick up the pace.”
Option B: “It’s important to me that we share the work equally between us. Lately it has felt out of balance. I was wondering if we could spend some time talking about how we divvy up the tasks.”
In the classroom, people always pick the better option. In real life, they don’t make the best choices.
Of course they’d like to be assertive, but tell me they believe the other person won’t take it well. It always reminds me of this scene. Can you name the movie?
How to handle the truth
Maybe it’s time to stop putting all the focus on the person who has something to say. There’s as much skill involved in receiving a tough message as there is in delivering one.
Here are seven things you can do that will help you handle the truth.
Give the other person the benefit of the doubt
Put yourself in her shoes. Would you want to tell you what she just said. Probably not. So why did she do it?
- Maybe it was because she wanted to help you.
- Maybe she wanted to improve the group’s performance.
- Maybe the current situation was causing her a big problem and she was seeking relief.
- Maybe she felt responsible for making sure things were done according to procedures.
- Maybe she hates you and wanted to make your life miserable.
Which one sounds most plausible to you? Which one are you likely to have picked if you reacted poorly?
Say thank you
Delivering a tough message isn’t easy. Most people choose badly and instead talk about you behind your back, give you the cold shoulder, blast you with anger, make sarcastic comments, or just seethe in silence. This person who is talking to you now made a different choice. One that strikes me as a lot more positive. A thank you is in order.
Summarize what the person has told you
You don’t need to react, but you should make sure that you heard the message correctly. Play back, using a neutral voice, what you understand the person to have said. Don’t act out what you believe the person’s intentions were, because you don’t know what they were. Maybe it goes like this, “I want to make sure I understand you. Over the last couple days, you think that we haven’t been sharing the work fairly. It also sounds to me like you’re feeling angry about it. Is that right?”
Ignore the style
While people claim to know how to deliver an I-statement, it seems that few use them. I can remember plenty of instances in which someone is letting me have it, and aren’t even close to what I think would be assertiveness. Instead they are aggressive or passive-aggressive. In these cases I tell myself that the person is nervous, angry, or doesn’t know better. I do my best to ignore the delivery style and focus on the content. What exactly was the person trying to tell me? That’s what I pay attention to.
If the message is unclear, ask questions
Once the conversation has started, you may as well do your best to bring it to a successful conclusion. Try using a lot more questions. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of what the person wants you to know. You will also demonstrate that you are listening.
Engage in the problem solving process
If the person has shared a concern and seems interested in finding a solution, go into problem-solving mode (after making sure the person knows you’ve heard what she had to say). Invite her to share her ideas, and offer yours. Talk about common interests. Work toward consensus on what can be done to resolve the situation or prevent it from happening again.
When you don’t agree
It’s possible you don’t agree with what the other person has said. You think she is wrong and/or out of line. In these cases, you will likely feel angry. Resist the urge to explain, defend, deflect, or blame. While it’s possible you might clear up a misunderstanding, it’s more likely that you will be viewed as defensive and/or unwilling to listen. And if that happens, the person isn’t likely to give you feedback again.
In those cases, the best thing to do would be to thank the person again for sharing her feedback and tell her that “You’ve given me some things to think about.” After you simmer down a bit, you may find parts of the message that you did need to hear.
You want feedback
Feedback helps you improve. Make it easy for people to provide it to you. They need to believe that you will react well.
I’m curious, do you think people in your organization would benefit from learning how to receive tough messages? I’m building a workshop around these ideas. Add a comment if there are other tips you think I should include. If you want me to deliver it for your organization, contact me and we’ll get something scheduled.