Do you dread having to tell someone something that you feel is not going to be welcomed? You are not alone in dreading approaching tough subjects, procrastinating, or avoiding problems all together. No one likes to be the bearer of bad tidings or have to play the heavy. It is possible, however, to learn how to deliver difficult information in a positive way so that everyone comes away with better insight and information. You can learn how to approach tough situations in a positive manner and arrive at positive outcomes for productivity and team building. It is all in the way you handle delivering difficult information.
There are many barriers to addressing problems in a timely manner. We cringe when we have to be the bearer of ill tidings such as a layoff or a reprimand, but you can learn how to not only identify the barriers that you face but also to nullify them and create a positive environment. Something we don’t often consider is the fact that all information, even good information, can be difficult to deliver at times. The barriers we fear such as encountering ill will or interrupting project time lines can cause us to delay communicating, actually making the situation worse. If you recognize these barriers and know how to overcome them, you will be a better, more effective leader.
There is actually a formalized process for addressing sticky situations with proven techniques that create a positive, productive environment and improve communications. Trust and respect impact all relationships and you can build those characteristics into professional relationships that are productive. That formalized process is a seven-step process on how to deliver difficult information to make sure that positive outcomes occur for everyone. Part of that process is not only knowing what to say, but what to ask.
In any communication, there are some key questions that can open up communication and bring clarity to the information that is being communicated. Top leaders know the key questions that consistently establish rapport, focus on outcomes, minimize emotions, and pinpoint actions that need to be undertaken. These key questions can be used in all communications, not just when addressing sticky situations or problems that arise. Having those key questions at your fingertips and knowing when to use them makes you more prepared to deal with tense situations when they arise rather than playing defense and trying to repair relationships later.
Did you know being curious can help you resolve problems and assist in keeping emotions in check? Asking questions is a key technique in getting to the core root of problems that arise. A good example is the situation that a key executive faced with a new manager on his team. The new manager established good communication with everyone within his division except one particular project engineer. The project engineer had been with the company for many years and had a very good work record; however, since the new manager arrived, the engineer was moody and spent too much time in the executive’s office. The executive’s curiosity was piqued and he brought the manager into his office to discuss the situation. Their brainstorming and questioning revealed a very simple cause of the problem – the project engineer did not feel the new manager had the qualifications to do the new job. Upon this discovery, the executive was able to discuss and share key information with the engineer concerning the manager’s qualifications – information which had not been fully disclosed before to the engineer.
Once the engineer was assured by the information that the manager was capable and quality would not suffer, the engineer and the manager actually developed a strong working relationship based on mutual respect and even became friends outside work.
By asking the right questions, listening to the answers, and working together through the communication process, the manager, the executive and the engineer were able to work out the problem. If the situation had been avoided or ignored, it would have only worsened and perhaps other problems would have arisen from it. The executive was able to address the problem using the communication process he had learned and realized a resolution that worked for everyone.
Key questions to help in clarifying the communication process:   

  • What would be valuable for you to know about this difficult situation?
  • What would be an important outcome as a result of our meeting? Conversation?
  • What information do you think would be good for me to know?
  • What issues are you facing that you think I can support you on?
  • What aspects of this situation are frustrating for you?
  • How can I help to remove any blocks to this issue and/or to help with productivity?

You can see the tone of these questions help to create a level playing field so that all involved can keep the key information clear and avoid anger and frustration.
You can learn how to hold people accountable while still building and maintaining high value relationships – both skills that successful leaders understand and employ. First, evaluate your track record of delivering difficult information. Do you realize positive results in the end or do you tend to burn bridges with your approach? By analyzing how you currently deliver difficult information and the results you attain will help you pinpoint areas where you can improve or hone your skills.
Some of the areas with which you struggle might include lack of clarity both in understanding the problem and visualizing the outcome. Asking questions can help focus on the problem and asking “what” and “how” questions can help you focus on the end result that you wish to achieve.
Everyone has to deliver information that is unwelcome, uncomfortable, or unexpected but a highly effective leader learns how to do it so the outcome is positive for all who are involved. Learning the process of communicating difficult information and doing so successfully is a leadership skill that can be formalized, practiced, and integrated into a 
successful career.
To your success,

P.S.  The idea that we are done with learning our skills needed to be effective and results oriented is just plain wrong.  The listening test has helped thousands of people realize just how well (or not) they are listening.  The art of listening well is the cornerstone of confident communication excellence. 

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