Every great leader must master the art of the “hard conversation.” Whether it is talking with an underperforming staff member, addressing a problem with your staff team, firing an employee or discussing a rift in a friendship, hard conversations are inevitable.
None of us like having the “hard conversation,” and if you do enjoy them you probably shouldn’t be in ministry. When you love people and you have a shepherd’s heart, “hard conversations” will cause a little angst and turmoil in your soul.
It’s sort of like your child getting a splinter in their finger. As much as you hate to hurt them by getting out the tweezers and digging out the splinter, you know that you must inflict short term pain for there to be long term health. To ignore the splinter is to take the risk of an infection.
The same is true with hard conversations. As a leader, there are times when you must pull out the verbal tweezers and dig out the potentially harmful splinter. I know from personal failure, that to ignore the splinter is to invite organizational and relational infection.
So, let’s say you have made the decision that a “hard conversation” is necessary. What then? How do you handle this in a way that causes minimal pain but deals with the issue that necessitated the “hard conversation”?
One lesson I have learned in recent years that has helped me immensely is this simple practice:
By personality, I am a processor. So, it has been very helpful to me to write down my thoughts ahead of time. I usually won’t carry my notes into the meeting, although on a handful of occasions when the meeting was potentially volatile I carried my notes in with me because I wanted to be accurate, thorough and careful with my words.
Let me give you 3 significant advantages to writing down your thoughts.
1. It helps you clarify your own thinking
The old saying is true “thoughts disentangle themselves when they pass through the lips and the fingertips.” If you can’t write it down, it’s not clear enough in your mind. Writing makes for clear and precise articulation.
2. It helps you stick to the core issues
One of the problems with “hard conversations” is that they are usually emotionally charged. Therefore, it is easy to let emotions take over and start chasing rabbits. Or, it is easy to be fuzzy and vague and walk away from the conversation never having dealt with the real issue.
Another thing I have found helpful is to articulate the core issue and then illustrate it with examples. But if you start with examples, people will often start debating the example and miss the core issue. When thinking about examples you might want to share in the “hard conversation”, here is a good question to ask yourself:
“What is the core issue that this example illustrates?”
3. It helps you eliminate unnecessary or hurtful words
Whenever I feel that I must have a hard conversation, I remember the words of Proverbs 18:21. Solomon says The tongue has the power of life and death. As a leader your words have tremendous staying power, both positively and negatively. I always try to ask myself questions like “If I were in their shoes, how would I hear these words?” or “how can I model both truth and grace in this conversation?”
So, the next time you must have a “hard conversation,” set aside some time to think through and WRITE DOWN exactly what you want to communicate. You’ll be glad you did.