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How Leaders Handle Hard Conversations

By LuAnn Nigara

LuAnn Nigara

Owning a business often feels like you are the lead clown in a circus act. You know what I mean: “In the center ring, we have Joe the Clown and the amazing spinning plates trick!” When you start a window treatment or an interior design business, it’s so much more than window treatments and design. It’s finances, marketing, social media, networking, hiring… Each one of these is a plate that requires our attention to keep it spinning.

Some of the most important plates we spin are our relationships. If you’re like me, that’s usually a good thing. I enjoy speaking with people, building those valued relationships, and swapping stories and conversations. But maintaining those relationships comes with the good, the bad and the ugly.

When the ugly rears its head, you have to figure out how you’re going to handle it. As much as you might like to avoid conflict, you can’t be a business owner without having the tough conversations and using the art of conversation to work through them. 

Taking the easy path leads to hard times

There are times where letting things go makes sense. There are also times when that is absolutely not possible if we want to maintain our integrity. We’ve all faced a situation where a vendor makes an error (or, worse, repeated errors) that reflect on our company and credibility. When this happens, your reputation is on the line. Or what about when a tradesperson speaks out of turn to your customer directly? They undermine or usurp you, or they create doubt about you and your directions.

And, as if the beast of a global pandemic wasn’t enough to deal with, it brought even more tough conversations for us. We’re facing new extreme delays that we have no control over, creating tension, disappointment and uneasiness in customer relationships. It’s created anxiety and apprehension with employees regarding protocols in our business. Each employee has various levels of comfort, and we as business owners have to figure out those levels and determine whether or not we can work with them. 

We know we have to address these situations. When you avoid the tough situations, you lose credibility as an owner and a leader. If you don’t take control of situations when you can, it’s on you when they spiral out of control. It also leads to a negative power dynamic. If customers lose faith that you can be relied on to do the right thing, they start to feel like they need to demand what they want. That’s never a situation you want to be in. 

When former Walt Disney Executive Vice President Lee Cockerell appeared on my podcast, he said something that stuck with me. “When you only do the easy things, everything else gets harder, but when you do the hard things, everything else gets easier.”

Coincidentally, that sentiment is something I’ve always lived by, although, admittedly, I’ve said it less eloquently—usually, “OK, LuAnn, time to put your big-girl panties on right now or it’ll only be harder later.” It’s better to tackle the hard issues now rather than waiting for them to fester. 

When you boil it down, as the business owner, you are the leader, and it’s not always rainbows and butterflies. You have to be the example for your company because everyone looks to you. That means tackling problems head-on. They don’t go away on their own when you pretend they don’t exist—in fact, they usually just escalate. 

But when you step up and face the hard conversations, it shows integrity. It sets the tone for how those around you will deal with you and gives you leverage in the conversations. Perhaps, most importantly, it shows a willingness to be collaborative. 

How to handle hard conversations

There’s an art to having these tough conversations—one that requires a measured approach and plenty of practice. These are the steps that I have found lead to a successful outcome.

Face the problem in person: It’s best to have the tough conversations in person. If that’s not possible, then have it over the phone. Email and text messages are not productive in these situations. You can be misconstrued or make the problem worse, and you can’t respond in real time if the conversation starts to go sour. 

Check your emotions at the door: When tough situations arise, it’s time to use your mind, not your heart. You might be offended, scared or irritated, and that can cloud your judgment and keep you from finding the right solution. Keep your emotions in check and retain a clear, rational view of the situation.

Empathize: Very rarely do people do the wrong thing on purpose. Assume the best in the person you’re dealing with. Find a way to empathize with the other person, see their side and consider how that has affected their actions and motives. Be accepting and understanding that people make mistakes. 

Find common ground: Where are the areas where you can and do agree—even if those areas are small and have nothing to do with the crux of the problem? Knowing these areas of common ground (and being able to highlight them) will be useful in showing your willingness to come to agreements. It also establishes a “team” feeling so you can address problems together and work toward peaceful solutions.

Look for a win-win: Nobody wants to admit they are wrong. Nobody wants to be embarrassed. Even if the other person has made an error, give them grace. Show respect for the other party and search for solutions that allow them to save face. Not only will this make the conversation easier, but it will also build stronger relationships so they want to do the right thing by you in the future. 

Establish your nonnegotiables: Before you enter into the tough conversation, know exactly what you will and won’t do. Figure out your needs and objectives beforehand. You don’t want to be making tough judgment calls in the middle of the conversation. If you already know what your nonnegotiables are, you know right away if a solution is unacceptable.

Use the power of open-ended questions: Avoid yes/no questions or questions that will allow the other person to shut down the conversation. Instead, ask open-ended questions to try to learn the other party’s motives. This will let you see their side of things and give you a feel for their nonnegotiables so that you can look for a viable solution. 

Talk less, listen more: Just like in any conflict, it’s better to listen more and speak less. It will give you helpful information on what is really motivating their unhappiness, dissatisfaction and objections. It will also show you are reasonable: You are looking for common ground and are open to a solution. 

Use real-life examples: Don’t be afraid to employ real-life examples to illustrate how you have solved similar problems in the past, how you feel about the problem and why you are invested in solving it amicably. 

Take the high road: Speak with integrity and respect, no matter how they handle themselves. When you speak derogatorily, you lose credibility. Ears and minds close down when they are in defense mode. Don’t put people there by attacking them. 

Clarify what you heard them say: How often have you misunderstood a spouse’s intention and had a problem escalate because of it? The same thing happens in work situations. Don’t assume that you know what the other party means. State what you heard them say and ask if you understand their side fully. This helps you avoid misconstruing the situation. 

Ask for their solution: People tend to avoid asking the other party what they would like to see happen because they think it will put them at a disadvantage. But this is helpful for a few reasons. The first is that in asking you learn what the heart of the problem is. It might be different than what you thought. The second is that just because you asked what they want it doesn’t mean you have to agree to it. The third is that you can use this information as a stepping stone to a solution.

I will add that beyond these advantages, it’s surprising how often you can actually simply agree to their ask. So many times, when I have asked, “What would you like to see happen here?” or “What can I do to make you happy?” I’ve been able to say, “Oh, OK, no problem. I’m happy to do that.”

Offer your ideal solution: Explain what you would like to have happen. Include something they are asking and what you are giving in return. Explain why you think it is a win-win. Be clear about what you are willing to do and what you cannot agree to. This might be the end of the conversation, or it might be a step in the negotiation process. Either way, it moves the conversation forward. 

Don’t rush the solution: Don’t think you have to offer a solution in the first meeting. If, after having the hard conversation and gathering all the new information from their point of view, you need time to think and regroup, just say so. Express appreciation for the productive conversation, make it clear that you want to work with them for resolution and let them know that you need to take a day or so to think about the best ways to honor the deal, the relationship or future projects. Tell them when you will get back to them and follow through. 

Wrap it up the right way: Ask if they are satisfied with the solution. Ask if they can see your desire to work with them, to be fair and collaborative. This ensures that you leave the conversation without any misunderstanding. Then, summarize everything again and make a plan together with dates and timelines so you can put the solution into motion. 

If it sounds like a lot to remember, think back to what Lee Cockerell said. Taking the easy way out when conflict arises leads to worse problems in the long run. If you’re willing to lean in from the very beginning and tackle conflict the right way, you can establish yourself as a leader, preserve the relationships you need to keep your business running and inspire others to engage in more open resolution. 

LuAnn Nigara is an award-winning window treatment specialist, co-owner of Window Works in Livingston, NJ, and a board member of WCAA. Her highly successful podcast “A Well-Designed Business” debuted in February 2016. She has since recorded more than 600 episodes.

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