Employment law attorney Mike Maslanka of Dallas takes a look at the chapter on having difficult conversations with employees from As We Speak: How to Make Your Point and Have It Stick by Peter Meyers and Shann Nix.
Previously, I wrote about As We Speak: How to Make Your Point and Have It Stick by Peter Meyers and Shann Nix, but it’s so good, I thought it deserved revisiting. There is a great chapter on conducting conversations with employees, and I wanted to tell you about it. They call it “Bridges to Dialogue.” It’s essentially a step-by-step process on dealing with employee issues. First, the authors advise you to define your outcome. They write that you should tell yourself that by the end of a conversation with an employee, the employee will do “X” or you will be on the road to “X.”
Second ― and this is crucial ― separate the person from the problem. If an employee comes in late to a meeting and you label him “irresponsible,” then you view the employee as bad, and no solution is possible. But by separating the person from the problem, you can focus not on the individual, but on his behavior. In other words, the problem is coming late to meetings. No amount of editorial commentary about the employee is helpful.
Third, start talking, but stop after four sentences. Meyers and Nix point to research indicating that people’s minds wander, and they pay full attention to only the first three or four sentences they hear. After that, their attention drops off dramatically. For that reason, you should give messages in bite-size chunks and use questions to move the conversation along.
For instance, open with a question that the employee must say “yes” to, such as “I’d like to talk to you about our meetings. Is that all right?” What’s the employee going to do — say no? Meyers and Nix use the example of wanting to talk to your boss about a new training program. Instead of asking, “Can we talk about why we don’t have any training here?” (which is just an invitation for an argument), they suggest trying, “I’d like to talk to you about how we could raise the skill level of the team. Is that all right?” Makes sense.
And just like a hostage negotiator, you should reward concessions. The authors suggest oral responses such as “good,” “thank you,” “I understand,” and “that makes sense.” You get the idea. Semi-oral responses work, too (e.g., affirming noises such as “mmmm” during pauses). You can also use nonverbal cues like smiling and nodding. However, exercise caution when doing so. An employee may think you’re nodding because you agree with him.
Finally, Meyers and Nix stress demonstrating your commitment with a comment like “I’m committed to finding a solution to this and doing whatever we need to do. How about you?” If you get stuck, ask the employee:
- “What do you understand my point to be?”
- “Is there a seed of truth to what I am saying?”
- “What is it that you’re committed to doing?”
One reason I like the book is because it’s honest. Meyers and Nix say that in a courageous conversation, you may have to deal with anger. Their recommendation? Listen, ask questions, and paraphrase. By paraphrasing, they don’t mean acting like a parrot. Reformulate in your own words what you think the employee is telling you. If you think you’re going to be able to talk him out of his feelings or explain why his anger is inappropriate, you aren’t going to get anywhere. An employee is going to feel what he feels, and it’s your job to defuse the situation, not pour gasoline on it. By listening, questioning, and paraphrasing, you do just that. The authors suggest, however, that you tie your comments to the level of the employee’s anger. If the person you’re talking to is furious and you say “it sounds like you’re feeling a little annoyed,” you’re just going to make the matter worse.
Is this easy? No. Evolutionary biology teaches us that when we’re confronted, we either fight or flee. Meyers and Nix point out that by implementing the practices discussed in their book, you’re teaching yourself a new skill ― one you didn’t have before. If it were easy, everyone would do it. It’s a good book for lots of reasons, and I strongly recommend it.
Michael Maslanka is a partner in the Dallas, Texas, office of Constangy, Brooks & Smith, LLP. He has 30 years of experience in litigation and trial of employment law cases. He is the editor of Texas Employment Law Letter, and he also authors the “Work Matters” blog for Texas Lawyer.