How to approach a difficult conversation

Communicating in a crisis isn’t easy, which is why Magenta recently joined forces with Women in Property to run a virtual event designed to provide tips on how you should deal with delivering and receiving bad news, and the steps to take if you find yourself in that position.

In the lead up to the seminar, I had the opportunity to interview three business leaders – Rachel Houghton, managing director of Business Moves Group; Heather Powell, partner at Blick Rothenberg; and Louise Walker, director of AB Group – to find out how they deliver bad news respectfully, sensitively and clearly.

What’s your approach when it comes to having difficult conversations?

Louise Walker: “From a recruitment perspective, say when someone doesn’t get the job they want, the best thing to do is to be really honest and to give candidates really clear feedback. I think a lot of people take things quite personally so, when you’re relaying that feedback, be sure to deliver the news clearly, listen to what they’ve got to say and help them make a plan for the next opportunity.”

Rachel Houghton: “When you’re breaking bad news, it’s so easy for that to be interpreted as a personal choice rather than a business choice. It’s really crucial that when you’re getting that message across to ensure they understand the mechanics of why that’s happened and that it’s not a personal decision – it’s a business decision.”

Heather Powell: “Three years ago, I looked after a very talented accounting student that, for whatever reason, just couldn’t pass the accounting exam, which is pretty critical if you’re going to be an accountant. She was such a hard worker and really committed to the role – she also brought loads of skills to the mix. So, breaking the news that she had failed her exam for the second time, meaning her contract would be terminated, was really hard.

After breaking the news, I suggested we have breakfast in a few weeks’ time, once she’d had a chance to come to terms with the disappointment, to talk about her options. I used that breakfast meeting to focus on the positives, and to help her find her next path. She’s now pursuing a very successful career in banking. It gave me a huge amount of satisfaction to see her get a successful job because she deserved it. So, for me it’s about giving people the space to absorb the news and then helping them focus on the positives and what they can achieve next.”

Is there a good time to break bad news?

Heather Powell: There’s never really a good time but the main thing is to choose a point in the day when the person on the receiving end of bad news has the chance to collect their thoughts without having to go into an open plan office and hide their disappointment from their peers.

Do you think there’s a place for emotion when delivering or receiving sensitive news?

Rachel Houghton: “It’s okay to be empathetic with people, but I wouldn’t suggest that you become overly emotive because that doesn’t allow the person receiving the news to process what it means for them. As the receiver of bad news, it’s absolutely fine for emotion to come into it – it’s quite a natural response. But, as leaders, we must be able to absorb that response without involving our own emotions. We have to be consistent, steady and empathetic.”

Heather Powell: “People go through a whole gamut of emotions. You just have to stand back and let them go through that process. You can’t close down the discussion at that point. You’ve got to give them space.”

What tips do you have for dealing with someone who storms off or walks out before you finish the discussion?

Rachel Houghton: “I would let them leave and cool off, and then maybe give them an hour or so and send them a message to say, ‘We need to continue the conversation – when is a good time? Would you like to bring somebody with you?’ Give them the opportunity to have some control over when and how you continue that conversation.”

What’s your approach when it comes to motivating your teams in the face of adversity?

Louise Walker: “Keep momentum going by staying positive. And rather than obsess about the past, look to the future.”

For further reading, please take a look at Magenta’s guide on how to deliver bad news well.

To see more virtual events from Women in Property

Jo Sutherland