May 21, 2017

Leading a Difficult Conversation: There is Help | Leading from the Library

Steven BellA tough skill for leaders to master is the art of the difficult conversation. Good leaders know how to manage the conversation to achieve a positive resolution. Here’s a new source of guidance for those who want to improve.

Whatever it was that initially drew you to library leadership, the prospect of engaging in difficult conversations with colleagues and subordinates was likely far down the list. Confrontations with employees or colleagues are inevitable. How to manage them was no doubt covered in a leadership development program or in an advice column or two. Despite those learning opportunities, these situations remain troublesome for many leaders, especially the less experienced. Tackling the problem before it festers and worsens is an important first step, but what’s the strategy for having the actual conversation?

In their book, Effective Difficult Conversations: A Step-by-Step Guide (ALA Editions), Catherine Soehner and Ann Darling offer practical advice covering a multitude of conflict situations. Even leaders who think they know how to handle difficult conversations are going to learn something from this book. When leaders are short on authentic experience with these situations, they put off having the difficult conversation, dreading engaging their subordinate or colleague. What I like about this book are the conversation scenarios with actual dialog scripts. Every situation, of course, is unique, but I can see this enabling a leader to prepare in advance for starting and managing the conversation.

I invited Soehner, associate dean for research and user services at the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah, to answer a few questions about difficult conversations and the book project.

SB: How did you get interested in conflict management? It’s something most leaders avoid. What drew you to it?

CS: I got interested in conflict management because I was so bad at it! I think a lot of people, myself included, are by nature conflict avoidant. Once I took on the role of director of the Science and Engineering Library at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I went from supervising no one to managing 15 employees, and suddenly, I needed to know how to hold effective difficult conversations. There were personnel issues that needed my attention and the more I avoided addressing those, the worse the behavior got and the morale of the overall group deteriorated.

I think you’re right; it’s my experience that most managers avoid having difficult conversations, which are an essential part of leadership and conflict management. I realized that I needed to improve on that aspect of my performance if I was going to be a good leader and manager. Luckily, I had the good fortune to work with Kate McGirr, who was in charge of our human resources department. She met with me weekly to discuss each issue and guided me on what to say and how to say it. Once I started having some success, my focus on improving my knowledge and skills in this area grew. So, what drew me to effective difficult conversations was the desire to deal with my fear and avoidance associated with conflict and I began to discover that I was stronger than I had imagined.

SB: What’s the most difficult conversation to have? Not that any may be “easy”, but what makes this particular topic more challenging than most?

CS: Everyone has their own “most difficult conversation.” And difficult conversations that a manager has to have with an employee will be different than difficult conversations between coworkers and those difficult conversations employees initiate with their bosses. We have tried to deal with a lot of different types of difficult conversations in our book, and from a lot of different perspectives. For me, the most difficult conversation I have to have is the one with an employee who is disrupting the work and morale of the organization through a series of negative behaviors. For me, it’s more challenging because the issues involved are not as clear cut as being late for your desk shift or missing deadlines. I think I have always been a pretty positive employee and do my best to make the best of bad situations. So, I don’t immediately understand why someone would be so negative that it affects their work and the work of those around them. Therefore, this kind of a conversation is most difficult for me because I have to get even more clear about what bothers me about the behavior I’m witnessing, make sure that I’m focusing on what I see, and defining very carefully what the expectations are for improvement. A description for improvement cannot be “just be more positive.” What does that mean? What behavior is positive? From the other person’s point of view, they may not see their behavior as negative at all, and instead see their behavior as a way to move the organization away from things that could fail, which in their mind is a positive thing.

SB: You offer loads of advice in the book, but what are your top three go-to strategies or tips for resolving conflict that most leaders will be able to internalize?

CS: Here are the three you really want to remember:

  1. Ask questions. If I find myself being drawn to defend my own actions, explain an issue in depth to the other person, or feeling angry, I need to go back to asking questions such as, “What does that mean for you?” “How would you have handled this if you were in charge?” “Tell me more about what it means that ‘no one is listening to you.’” “Can you give me an example?”
  2. Give yourself time to think. If someone tells me something that takes me by surprise or if they are demanding that I do something immediately, I will say something like, “You’ve brought up something that I hadn’t thought of before and I need time to think about it. I’ll get back to you on that.”
  3. Write up the conversation. I still struggle with making myself do this part, but it really is the cornerstone of good communication with another person and will move the process forward rather than having [it] stagnate. The mantra every leader and manager needs to live by is, if you don’t write it up, it’s as if it never happened!

SB: You delve into the importance of following up a difficult conversation with a written report. What’s your advice for writing just enough, yet not too much—and is this a case where less is better than more?

CS: It really depends on the situation and the person I’m working with. The first several meeting notes often reflect the general nature of the conversation and any decisions or action items. Something like, “We talked about our recent misunderstandings over the past week. We agreed to meet every other week for the next three months to establish a good communication routine. You agreed to bring agenda items to my attention a day before the meeting. I agreed to get the meeting invitations sent out over the electronic calendaring system.”

If the conversation was rambling, I will usually lean toward writing less and try to select the key points of discussion. If you are starting to document things that may ultimately be used for disciplinary action, then you need to write as much as necessary to allow you to proceed with whatever disciplinary action might be next. This is the importance of writing things up: I can’t tell you how many times, both as a manager and as a director of human resources, that I have been confronted with a year or more of increasingly poor performance on behalf of an employee, only to realize that since nothing was written down, any prior discussion of previous bad behavior cannot be used. The whole process had to be started over from the beginning. Remember, even long time and tenured employees can be let go, it just takes time and a lot of documentation.

SB: Change is hard, and occasionally leaders need to have a difficult conversation with a change-resistant subordinate. Does this require different strategies than conflict situations—or do you consider this to be a conflict situation?

CS: I see resistance to change as a conflict situation and treat it the same way I do any other difficult conversation. One of the things we describe in the book is being willing to allow an individual to change over a designated period of time by breaking down what is required into smaller steps that seem more manageable and can be accomplished easily by the individual. The example of Yolanda and Hector on page 90 of the book is a good illustration of this technique. Hector’s resistance to taking on chat reference is overcome by having him take on chat reference in what, for him, [are] smaller and more manageable steps: first, more training; second, shadowing someone; and then finally taking on his own shift.

SB: Sometimes we have a one-on-one difficult conversation with an employee. How does the dynamic differ when a leader is in the middle of a conflict between two employees? Are different strategies required for managing conversations with and between employees in conflict with each other?

CS: Since I am not a trained mediator, I tread very carefully in these situations. I usually begin by having one-on-one conversations with each person to determine if this is something I have the skills to work with. For example, if the conflict is simple, such as they are having trouble communicating about a deadline, that’s something I can manage using many of the skills outlined in the book. I would then move to bring both parties together and help them establish improvements on note taking, meeting agendas, and an overall work plan if there is a specific task involved. If it’s more involved, I will call in an expert. Many organizations have an ombudsman or a person in their human resources department who specializes in mediation.

Compared to other leadership skills, be it planning or presence, difficult conversation stands out as hard to master owing to the shifting and unpredictable nature of the situations and interactions. As Soehner and her coauthor share with readers, early in their supervisory stage of their careers, both botched many a difficult conversation. We all learn this skill in much the same way, from our past mistakes. Soehner’s hope is that this book will help other leaders learn from her past experience, allowing them to identify where and how they most need to improve and then offering practical advice and strategies to do just that.

Many thanks to Soehner for taking time to share her expertise about leadership communication and how to have an effective difficult conversation.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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