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Preparation vital to leading challenging conversations

Preparation and structure are essential to leading challenging conversations successfully in the workplace, a leading organisational consultant has said.

Speaking at a recent event forming part of The Industry Leaders of Tomorrow (ILOT) programme, a global Pinsent Masons initiative aimed at bringing together the rising stars from across the infrastructure and energy sectors, Dr. Rodney Howard of Insight People, outlined the benefits of setting time aside in advance of difficult conversations to plan how they should go.

Howard said: "We are biologically wired to steer away from conflict, thus challenging conversations are exactly that: challenging. With good intent, a healthy attitude and lots of practice, we can learn to lead these conversations professionally, and in a constructive manner. The place to start is with preparation and structure."

Good preparation will involve thinking about the messages you want to deliver are and how you want to deliver them, understanding what needs to be said and thinking of specific examples that might be cited to underscore the point, Dr Howard said. He said it may, in some cases, be appropriate to consider whether messages need to be delivered in a different way to different people.

Thought should also be given as to how best to set difficult conversations up for success, Dr Howard said. Consideration could be given to setting up a short preparatory call, what location the conversation should take place in, and what sort of assistance the other person might require as part of this process, he said.

Good preparation can assist in setting conversations off on the right path. Dr Howard said the first two minutes in a challenging conversation are vital, and that in that period it is important for those leading the discussion to ensure that the other participants understand what they are talking about and what will and won’t happen. He said leaders should share the purpose of the conversation and their intent, as well as their desired outcomes. They should also share the structure they want the rest of the conversation to follow and seek to embed messages that convey an approach towards a healthy, constructive, dialogue.

Dr Howard also emphasised the importance of remaining calm throughout the conversation and said leaders of those discussions should also be open and willing to understand others' perspective.

Dr Howard said that there are business imperatives to leading difficult conversations successfully. He said it enables better quality communications between employees and enables business to work better for people. It can also encourage transparency, build stronger relationships and better staff engagement, as well as promote healthy performance conversations and resolve conflicts constructively.

The core skills are particularly helpful for challenging conversations taking place in a virtual environment, which many businesses around the world continue to operate in as a result of the continuing Covid-19 pandemic, he said.

Dr Howard said: "When conversations that need to happen, don’t happen, it is a little like watching rust develop on the wheels of a train. Except that it is a relationship that becomes stuck. Healthy conversations are akin to oiling the wheels and allowing the relationship to flourish again."

For more information about The Industry Leaders of Tomorrow (ILOT) programme, please contact HollyAnn Walters-Quan of Pinsent Masons at [email protected].

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