Managing a Crisis? 3 First Aid Tips for ‘Difficult Conversations’

Managing a Crisis-Mary Rafferty Consensus Mediation

Even when your organisation is in crisis mode you still need to hold people accountable. Yet raising ‘difficult’ issues -performance, behaviour, or any unmet expectations – is hard to do properly when the stakes are high and everyone is running on adrenalin.

So how can you manage those ‘difficult conversations’ in a time-strapped, pressure cooker environment?

1. PAUSE – cool down and calm down

Do nothing before you do anything. Under pressure, our ‘hot’ buttons tend to get hotter, our patience and tolerance in short supply. Stress releases chemicals in the brain that impair our capacity for rational and higher level thinking. We are more sensitive to the triggering behaviour of others and more likely to react or fly off the handle.

Start by taking responsibility for this. That doesn’t mean accepting another person’s behaviour, passively seeing everything as your short fuse. But you need to start with ‘managing’ yourself first before you go figuring out how to deal with the other person. Find a way, even for a few minutes to slow down, take a step back and cool down some of the pulse-racing feelings that are coming up. Do whatever you have to do to allow the dust to settle because that’s the most important first step. A busy, harried mind is not a good starting point for a ‘difficult conversation’.

2. Allow CLARITY to emerge

Negative emotions – frustration, impatience, irritation can cloud your more measured commonsense thinking. You get into further overdrive trying to figure out what to do and/or say. Your mind will wander easily into the person’s past wrongs. You are likely to be bringing a whole story of ‘how difficult they are’ into the incident that has most recently arisen. Once that’s happening in your head, it’s can leak out in your interaction with them.

More useful is to focus on the future – what’s most at stake here and what’s the change that needs to happen now. What are the non-negotiables that you need to make clear and hold firm on? What aspects are less important at this point? Let the waters settle and the sediment of negative thinking and labelling about the other person get sifted out.

From a calmer state of mind, it will become clearer to you what’s most at stake and the key concerns you need to discuss and set boundaries around, with the other person.

3. Communicate CLEANLY, SUCCINCTLY, unfettered by narratives assumptions

What is it you need them to understand about your non-negotiables? It’s not just the words, your tone can also betray underlying ‘here-we-go-again’ feelings.

“In any situation the person who can most accurately describe reality without laying blame will emerge as the leader, whether designated or not.”

Edwin Friedman

Describe what happened.

Explain the impact.

Acknowledge (briefly) the challenging context.

Request the change you need to see and set a ‘done by’ date to check back with you.

For example:

“The students were all to have received the details of their next assignment with clear guidelines on drafting their answers by Friday last. Some approached me to say they didn’t get the assignment. Appreciate that things are pretty hectic at the moment for everyone. Can you get the project details to them asap and let me know when you have done that. Thank you.”

“The suppliers were to have received details of the order for xxx. They rang yesterday saying this never arrived. I get that there is a huge backlog. However, I’m concerned that any delay in getting the order in could have serious repercussions for our timelines on production. Can you please prioritise their order and get it to them asap. Let me know when that has gone through. Thanks.”

These might read a little sergeant-majorish… but it’s all in how you say it: your tone should be calm, cordial and respectful. If they argue back, get defensive don’t go there. Instead, try some acknowledgement [‘I get that you are busy, things are very stressed…’].

Reiterate what’s at stake or what the impact is of not following through and repeat the request about the change you need to see. Keep it short, to the point and avoid getting into lecturing or persuasion.

In summary then, there are three simple (but perhaps not so ‘easy’ steps):

  • 1. Pause – take a step back and don’t react
  • 2. Let your mind ‘settle’ and bring clarity, about the core future-focused issues and nonnegotiables at stake that need to be resolved
  • 3. Communicate key messages cleanly, succinctly, respectfully.

For more details on transforming ‘difficult conversations’ into win-win conversations download
my free eBook POISE NOW – 8 Steps to Win-Win Conversations for Leaders and Managers.