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Navigating tough conversations

by Janet Hueglin Hartwick
in Communication, Leadership, Management

Four steps to overcoming fear and keeping the dialogue flowing

Work conversations can escalate from awkward to difficult when leaders are unsure what to tell their staff, a situation in which many municipal professionals may often find themselves. Fear of the unknown can cast a shadow over employees’ day-to-day performance.

The following four steps can help leaders overcome their fears and keep the dialogue flowing.

1. Validate what’s Being Said

When a conversation goes sideways, it’s common for one or both parties to complain, “That’s not what I’m saying … you’re not hearing me.” Leaders can avoid frustrating their staff by validating what is said to them – regardless of if they agree with it or not. This simple gesture signals to the person you are speaking with that you are open to what they say. It can have a profound impact on the path a conversation will take. Staff who feel listened to are more likely to stay calm, engage in a two-way dialogue, and be open to other perspectives.

The Mayor by George B. Cuff

Validating what an employee says sets the stage for a productive conversation and can ease the tension of a staff member who is anxious about sharing how they feel with their leader.

2. Have a Clear Key Message

It might sound basic, but leaders do a better job communicating when they know what they’re going to say.

Fear of the unknown can lead staff to ask tough questions of their leaders. Unless your leaders are professional communicators, it’s only natural some would find it uncomfortable to respond. So, prepare ahead of time. Encourage professionals to make a short list of tough questions. Then, create thoughtful answers that validate employees’ concerns and demonstrate that the leader is there to listen, even without new information to share.

3. Be Fair

Rumours and rumblings can go into overdrive during a time of uncertainty. Staff want to know what is fact or fiction, and leaders are on the hot seat to calm employee concerns and get everyone back to work. Are your team leaders prepared to address rumours? Have they been coached on what to say? Do they invite staff to pass on what’s being heard “on the grapevine”?

Perhaps it would reduce tension if leaders kicked off their Monday morning meetings with the chance to share (and dispel) the latest rumours. Show complete transparency by welcoming questions, sharing what can be said, and then moving on with the day. One word of caution: It’s not okay to jump to this third step (bypassing the need for validation and a clear key message) when talking with an employee. It can be tempting for some professionals to skip “all the flowery talking,” but that will undo a person’s credibility as a leader.

4. Follow Up

It’s hard on everyone when change is coming and you don’t know what the outcome will be. It’s natural to feel uneasy, worried, or anxious. Leaders can help their staff by checking in on them and revisiting a conversation.

The Mayor by George B. Cuff

Even if they don’t have an update to give, having a spontaneous conversation with an employee, asking how they are doing, and following up on a project they mentioned builds trust. It shows employees their leaders are invested in them as a member of the team – regardless of what the future may bring.

The Invisible Fear Barrier

It may seem like leaders should know better than to put off an important discussion; but for some professionals, fear is an invisible barrier that stops them from speaking up sooner. Rather than “getting through” a tough conversation, it’s critical that leaders learn how to navigate a discussion in a way that doesn’t alienate their staff.  MW

Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in the full version of this article or in Darcy Michaud’s article: Respect & Dignity: Creating a psychologically safe and healthy workplace. Note that you can now access the complete collection of past articles (and more) from your membership dashboard.


Janet Hueglin Hartwick is a conversation coach and trainer. She is the founder of Conversations At Work, an evidence-based training program that helps leaders and reforms “cranky communicators” into self-aware conversationalists.

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