Manage a Tough Conversation & Build Trust

Manage a Tough Conversation & Build Trust

We don’ like tough conversations. We don’t want to have them. We often build up such a wave of worry and concern around the what-if scenario when it comes to tough conversations, we do the worst thing possible: nothing.


We Hate Tough Stuff

Working with business leaders and behavioral scientists, Kennedy Spencer conducted a 10-month communication study around Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in an attempt to identify links between communication and behaviors. As part of the study, we spoke to 50 business leaders, monitored countless employee dialogues and even went so far as to monitor EEG recordings and behaviors of participants subjected to destructive and productive dialogue.


In sum, the study showed that people do not react well to tough conversations. Even the thought of a tough conversation has adverse and negative physiological effects on participants’ brains and behaviors. Why? Because we perceive tough conversations as a potential threat to our core needs – namely safety, security, sense of belonging – needs that must be met in order for us to survive and thrive. When such a threat – either real or perceived – occurs, our instinctive fight or flight response is triggered. Important to note that tough conversations include conversations around change, performance, lay-offs, anything that the receiver, and in some cases communicator, feels may worsen his or her circumstance (i.e. I’m going to get fired, exacerbate a conflict, lose my job, etc., if I don’t handle this well).


What If the Tough Conversation Could Be the Best Thing That Ever Happened?


When we switch from communicating (i.e. telling) to conversing (i.e. interactive dialogue), some amazing things happen, to our brains, behaviors, and in the workplace.


Our brains are not hard-wired to change willingly. Interestingly, in various simulations when we changed the paradigm of the conversation – same topic, same people – participants showed far less agitated brain activity, more positive responses and willingness to act. While the study was not limited to tough conversations, the immediate impact around tough conversations was clear.


The model that resulted from the study – which we call Dialogue 4.0, includes 4-levels of needs that must be addressed, in order for the audience to successfully receive and understand the communication, progress to the next level, and ultimately become motivated to act.


The first level, critical to any conversation, is acknowledgement.


  1. Acknowledge the person – particularly during a tough conversation or change – as soon as possible The most important, and most forgotten, part of dialogue is acknowledgement.


Typically, organizations focus on the situation (e.g. we are restructuring; we have a great new product, information leak, etc.) rather than engaging in dialogue with the person(s) impacted by the situation. In reality, it is that person(s)’ needs that matter most.


For example, if a crisis occurs externally, leaders are usually pretty quick to acknowledge that situation and try to address it, understanding the immediate and incendiary damage that crisis can do to organizational reputation and share price.  How quickly the organization moves through a crisis is directly dependent on how quickly the leader can “calm the storm.” But it’s not really “the storm” they are calming; it’s the people affected by it.


Addressing a crisis or change situation internally, among and between teams, is arguably even more important, because those relationships are essential to individual, team and organizational health and well-being. Simply put, if a threat occurs externally, it is akin to the crack of a lightening bolt. An internal crisis or change is a storm, if not handled well, becomes a damaging flood. Regardless of internal or external, you are dealing with people whose needs must be met in order to motivate behavior.


Equally, during every day management situations, ignoring a person, a situation, or a reality – either by ignoring the situation completely or feigning that everything is fine, is just as, if not more, detrimental. Silence or feigning fineness is the quickest way to say: I don’t care. I don’t care about this. I don’t care about you. I don’t care what happens next. Or, I don’t know what to do. Do that once or twice, people become upset. Do it repeatedly, you destroy trust and people disengage. Leaders can’t lead people who don’t trust them. They must trust that they can handle a tough conversation, and so too can their people.


Turn communication into conversation

When a leader genuinely acknowledges a situation, the reality and toughness of the situation, that leader turns the communication inside out, and creates an interactive conversation. A conversation that addresses needs, dispels fear, builds trust and motivates behavior. Specific steps:

  1. Acknowledge the reality of the situation and importantly, the people.
  2. Think about core fears surrounding the situation; consider what people need to know – not you want to say.
  3. Ask for feedback on your assumptions. Listen.
  4. TOGETHER, develop a plan of action to meet an agreed goal. It shouldn’t be a huge, performance goal, but attainable demonstration of progress.
  5. Empower each other to take ownership of the situation and solution.
  6. Follow-up, address the needs, continue the dialogue and celebrate the forward progress


One HR leader told me she was “amazed,” at how turning just one tough conversation inside out produced such immediate and long-term change in behavior. She stated it even made the dreaded lay-off conversations not only easier, but also in some cases productive. She now makes it a practice among her team.


Speaking of practice: do it!


  1. Practice Makes Perfect: Many leaders practice speeches, presentations, town halls, sales and digital pitches, but the tough conversation isn’t often practiced beforehand, even though, given the intimate setting or high-stakes topic, it has far more weight.


Sure, talk points, a Q&A, scripts are created and technology used to create and effectively deploy communication. But leaders need to test drive conversations, understand what works and doesn’t, which requires authentic feedback. This, of course, is another problem, because who wants to tell the boss to stop saying what he’s saying. (For the record, I do. I’d rather have someone annoyed at me than let a communication bomb, and luckily the leaders I’ve worked for never had a problem with feedback).


Fact is, more important than knowing what to say, how it was received, understood and acted upon. Without authentic feedback, learning is impossible and worse, the damage done can spread like wildfire.


You can test drive your conversations in a number of ways. For our clients, we use a technology platform that can be accessed anywhere and allows members to record, upload and practice any communication – from speeches, presentations, tough conversations, classroom lessons, pitches, meetings – and receive feedback from colleagues, managers, clients and/or professionals – before the actual conversation occurs. We’ve found it useful in inspiring collaboration and building an ongoing dialogue vs. re-creating the wheel. This also provides intelligence that identifies what works and doesn’t before the after-the-fact metrics, performance review, sales projections, and annual employee engagement survey.


I say this often but “every conversation counts.” It actually counts more than ever in times of change, tumult and transformation, because even a one-on-one conversation is never truly one-on-one, given the increasingly disrupted and digital workplace.


However, if you turn the conversation inside out, focus on the person(s) and meet his/her needs, it’s an incredible opportunity to lead, motivate, create calm among the storm, and build trust.