Avoid being a headless chicken when faced with difficult conversations

Last week I was lucky enough to be part of a team of coaches at a leadership academy for a large financial services firm. For the delegates, one of the most insightful parts of the sessions were when senior leaders stepped away from their busy roles and sat down to share war stories of difficult conversations with the generation below.

For aeons people in client facing situations have been advised to listen and question in order to hear what their customer really wanted. But in practice, nerves and a reluctance to receive a negative response often ends in a rushed and pushy approach. When the outcome is negative then the refuser becomes demonised as a reason for not securing the sign off of the new budget or deciding to go with a competitor. Future conversations are then welcomed as much as a chicken welcomes an invitation into a den of foxes.

The senior partner advised the group first and foremost to look for the person they are dealing with. Simple questions like “how are you feeling?” or “how was your weekend” should not be dismissed as pointless banalities but if asked with sincerity can build trust and encourage a more open conversation. The partner also encouraged the group to be authentic to themselves. Pretending to be something or to know something only leads to the impression of talking to a robot and a scared one at that. He encouraged them to reply with an enthusiastic ” I don’t know the answer right now but let me come back to you after speaking with our team” rather than fumble and flannel, wasting valuable client facing time.

To put this into practice don’t ‘”think of your audience as naked” instead try to ‘think of your audience as human” and you will reap greater rewards. Next time you start to dread a potentially difficult conversation, try to think about that person at the weekend away from their day job. You’ll start to respond to a human and look for the real reasons why the deal isn’t going to work instead of blaming it on a fictitious monster who is out to get you.