“What was that?” I wondered. That bad feeling in the pit in my stomach, the bags under my eyes from lack of sleep, the shortness of breath. Then it hit me: It was my physical reaction to worrying about a difficult conversation that I needed to have. I had to do my first employee firing. To that point in my young career, I’d never had to let someone go and I was not looking forward to it. Even though this person had plenty of opportunity to improve and many conversations concerning their performance, we finally came to an impasse and my boss forced my hand. Ugh.
I knew I had to do it, but I didn’t want to do it and I was trying to avoid it. Unfortunately, avoiding the difficult moment was creating more issues on my team, because this person was not only a poor performer, but he also had a toxic personality. Everyone knew that I had to do it, and I’m sure many were wondering why I wasn’t doing it. In reality, I was afraid. I was afraid of the employee’s reaction, I was afraid of being judged, and I was afraid of the unknown — after all, I’d never done this! My fear was pushing me to avoid it and just live with it. Fortunately for everyone, including the soon-to-be former employee, my boss was pushing me to make it happen.
I remember talking to my boss about it. He kept telling me that while it’s unfortunate, we’d done everything we could to give this person an opportunity to improve and his moving on was best for him, for the team, and for me. He also told me that I was making it harder than it needed to be. My boss didn’t seem to think this was a difficult thing to do. He seemed fearless. I felt so inadequate at the time.
It’s been decades since that experience. Throughout my career, I’ve had to make some other tough people decisions, unfortunately. They were never taken lightly, but somehow along the way they’ve become less difficult to do. They’re not easy — they’re just easier than the first time I had to do it. Why is that?
First, I’ve been able to better deal with my emotions. I don’t carry the same fears that I did before. I also don’t let my emotions get the best of me. I’m not a robot: There are still emotions, but they aren’t paralyzing or leading me to avoid the conversation. Instead, I’ve learned to identify the emotions, recognize the triggers that lead to my emotions, and understand the support that I need to manage those emotions.
Secondly, I pay careful attention to the experience that I’ve had with “the difficult conversation” as well as with the person I need to speak to, and I do my best to not allow one to impact the other. It’s easy for us to let the baggage of our experience with this topic negatively influence our approach with the person, or vice versa. It’s important to separate the two and deal with each accordingly.
Lastly, my expertise at handling the situation has improved with time. The more often you have to deal with it, the better you become at it. Repetition and practice can help cultivate an expertise that will make having “the difficult conversation” easier.
In the end, my boss was right: I made that conversation more difficult than it needed to be. But when you don’t have control over your emotions, you have limited experience, and you don’t have the right tools, any conversation can feel daunting. However, understanding your emotions, analyzing your experiences, and developing an expertise will help make difficult conversations easier.
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