Holding difficult conversations can be a challenge for both staff and for managers, more so for managers if a member of their team is struggling with negative thoughts. As managers, we are duty bound to look after our staff. As people, it is inherent in us to want to be there to help others.
No manager wants to be left wondering whether they should have said something to a team member should the worst happen and that person ends their life, knowing that you might have been able to intervene.
As managers who need to meet with staff, some of the challenges we struggle with are; do you send them an invitation explaining the purpose of the meeting, do you surprise them, do you get straight to the point or ask them how things are going as a way of opening the challenging conversation?
The easy answer is to say, it depends. I have read many posts that say just that, it depends. That's not very helpful. As a crisis negotiator who has spent over 20 years training and coaching around the world developing communication programmes for various situations, here is a suggestion;
- Don't alert the person too early as to what it is that you want to talk with them about, other than to say you are concerned for them and would like to have an informal chat to see how you can help. Do this about an hour before you want to meet with them.
- Where you meet them is just as important as what you say in the meeting, they will always remember that place and may feel uncomfortable each time they return there. Hold the meeting in a neutral venue where it is unlikely that they will return - a breakout room where others can't see into or a Cafe are the best choices.
- Opening the conversation can be difficult, if you ask the person "How are things going", they will most likely tell you that everything is fine and that they are coping. My suggestion is to go straight to the point as soon as possible after a general conversation. It is done in three parts - what have you noticed, what is your concern, what is your question of the person.
"I have noticed lately that you are not your usual self (describe what behaviour has changed), and I/we am/are concerned about you and that you may not be coping, is there something going on that I/we can help you with?"
Once the person opens up, follow their lead by asking a question from what they have just said. For example they might say "There's just so much going on at the moment" so you follow with either "What are all of the things going on at the moment" or "Tell me about all of those things". By following their lead, you will quickly get to the underlying issue.
Once you have found the problem, don't try and fix it straight away. Ask them, "So how does all of this impact on you" or "How are you feeling with all that is going on". Emotions are what drives us and from which most of our actions emanate.
Next, acknowledged that emotion. "These things are hard", or "These things can be tough", or "You do have a lot going on at the moment". An emotion that is acknowledged is disarmed and will open the door to the truth.
On that point of emotions, I was recently asked that talking about emotions is straying into psychology and that should be left to trained people. I agree, asking someone how they feel is psychology, it is not however limited to psychologists to ask, it is in fact the psychology of human behaviour and interaction, of being connected as people. Ask that question, please, I implore you to.
In some organisations where I work, I leave them with a code, a code to indicate that you want to have a challenging conversation with someone who is struggling or when you yourself are struggling. Often we are reluctant to approach someone who is struggling mentally or it is difficult to ask to talk with someone if we are the one who is struggling.
"Is now a good time?" is the code we suggest that you use. Why, because it is seldom said therefore makes the person being asked to stop and think for a moment. We often ask things such as "Have you got a minute to talk", or "Can I meet with you later". Both give the opportunity for the other person to delay the conversation.
"Is now a good time?" You bet it is, now is always a good time to talk.