4 strategies to get managers talking

Too many leaders sidestep awkward conversations, making situations worse

It’s not uncommon for HR professionals to say, “We offered managers communication training on how to have tough conversations, but some managers still put off important discussions with their staff.”

Despite learning techniques on how to engage with their team, managers often default to their old habits — which frustrates staff and hurts performance.

And while human resources can provide the tools and invest the time, effort and resources in a training session, these will only take hold if the leaders are open to change.

There are three reasons why leaders resist new techniques:

“I’m already a good communicator”

“Although we are born with the gift of language, research shows that we are surprisingly unskilled when it comes to communicating with others,” say Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, authors of Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict, and Increase Intimacy.

Much like table manners, being an “effective communicator” can mean different things to different people based on their own life experience.

The insight for an employee to discover is that good communication includes speaking and being understood. In some cases, this means unlearning bad conversation habits learned in adolescence.

“We often choose our words without thought, oblivious of the emotional effect they can have on others,” say the authors.

“We talk more than we need to. We listen poorly, without realizing it, and we often fail to pay attention to the subtle meanings conveyed by facial expressions, body gestures, and the tone and cadence of our voice — elements of communication that are often more important than the words we actually say.”

“I don’t know what to say”

Learning to communicate differently is like learning to play a card game. First, you learn the rules and then you practise until you get the hang of things. It’s essential to practise long enough to feel confident you know what you’re doing.

Unfortunately, it’s common for communication training sessions to end before employees can hit their stride and experience their confidence taking flight. A leader needs to experience an “a-ha” moment for new training to trump their fear of making a mistake. Until this occurs, a person can be stuck trying to relearn the rules over and over again.

“I can’t say that” 

If a leader says, “Before you leave today, can I see you in my office?” it doesn’t matter how old you are, your brain will probably think, “Uh-oh, I wonder what’s wrong?”

This learned behaviour is the work of our emotions, which act like a gatekeeper, filtering what the brain hears and looking for connections with past experiences.

It sends messages in the form of bodily sensations. Emotional responses are milliseconds faster than thinking responses.

In other words, we feel before we can think. It’s not possible to rationalize our way out of this spontaneous process. So, when an employee is instructed to say something that feels uncomfortable, perhaps even risky, his emotional gatekeeper has no choice but to hit the panic button.

4 strategies

Learning the right thing to say is easy — actually looking into someone’s eyes and communicating effectively is a skill that takes time. Even professional communicators can get nervous when they lead a challenging conversation.

Here are four ways to address the barriers that may hold staff back, while boosting their self-assurance so they can start having those important conversations:

Provide example statements: Leaders often hold back out of fear of saying the wrong thing. They become far more willing to try when they know the right thing to say.

For instance, there are different ways to address some of the most awkward messages a manager has to deliver.  

Instead of saying, “No,” a leader could say “Thank you, I wish we could but…” or “I’m not sure because…”

Instead of saying, “maybe,” they could say, “Leave it with me and we’ll come back to the idea” or “You raise an interesting point, I like where you’re going with that.”

And if a manager is unsure of how to respond, she could say, “I hadn’t thought of that, let me get back to you” or “Tell me more about what you are thinking.”

Spark their interest: The brain turns off when it’s bored, according to John Medina, author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School. As a result, it’s possible many training sessions are underwhelming.

HR should look at reinvigorating the content by asking a few managers to highlight the key takeaways to share. They should be encouraged to use multimedia tools and pump some creativity into the assignment. Try holding mock conversations to bring the training to life.

Make the payoff clear: Some directors say, “It’s not my responsibility how other people take what I say.”

This perspective is not uncommon. Managers are far more motivated to follow through on communication training if they know it will help their role as leader.

Explaining these benefits to managers can help motivate them to see the value in having more effective conversations with their staff and colleagues.

• It saves time: Clear conversation can reduce the need for follow-up discussions.

• It’s about maximizing effort: Staff conversations already happen, so aim to get the most out of each one.

• It boosts your personal reputation: Quality performance includes staff or colleague feedback. 

• It helps people meet their goals: Employees who have quality conversations with their leader can achieve more.

De-stress the situation:  Stressed brains do not learn the same way as non-stressed brains, according to Medina. The body’s defence system — the release of adrenaline and cortisol — is built for an immediate response to a serious but passing danger, such as a sabre-toothed tiger, not the chronic stress of being asked to do something uncomfortable, like lead an awkward conversation over and over again. 

Each leader has an emotional gatekeeper who needs to get onboard, so it’s about having an open conversation about why difficult conversations are hard to lead, and helping managers set new goals and identify successes. 

Things to remember

It can be challenging to convince leaders to change how they communicate, but it’s worth the effort.

Henry Mintzberg, a business and management academic from McGill University in Montreal, estimates 60 to 90 per cent of a manager’s time is spent talking:

“The manager does not leave the telephone, the meeting or the email to get back to work. These contacts are the work.”

Even the most reluctant communicator can improve if she works through the unconscious barriers holding her back.

Janet Hueglin Hartwick is founder of Conversations at Work in Toronto. For more information, visit www.conversationsatwork.ca.

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