5 tips to manage difficult conversations

How do you navigate your way around difficult conversations?

We all have them. Those hard conversations you know you need to have. The ones that make your stomach drop and your mouth go dry at the very thought of them.

There’s often no way to avoid these conversations, particularly for recruiters who are required to deliver sensitive news and feedback on a regular basis. Even the most experienced professionals can find themselves hesitating to pick up the phone at times to let a candidate know they were unsuccessful, manage salary expectations, or provide a hiring manager with feedback around their interview style.

What makes these conversations so difficult?

According to Michelle Rushton, communication and influence expert and co-founder and director of People of Influence, there are 2 key components that comprise a difficult conversation in a professional setting:

  1. It seems like you and the other person might have mutually incompatible goals
  2. You anticipate that there might be strong emotions on one, or both, sides

Often, these difficult conversations are distilled into one of 5 recurring themes that come up regularly throughout the course of a recruiter’s work:

  1. Declining external candidates
  2. Declining internal candidates
  3. Managing salary expectations 
  4. Providing feedback to candidates about being a “bad cultural fit”
  5. Providing a hiring manager with feedback on their interviewing skills

While these conversations can at times be uncomfortable, they aren’t insurmountable. Just like the development of any other professional skill, successful communication requires consideration, practice, and strategy.  

Here are 5 tips from Michelle to help recruiters navigate their way around difficult conversations.

1. Give it time

Heightened emotions are often a key factor in a difficult conversation, and fear of confrontation (from either side) can lead to even more anxiety around these interactions. Michelle says providing plenty of time and space here can help progress the interaction.

“Can you give the person response time? Can you give them a buffer between having the conversation and when you require a response from them? If you can open that gap up, you’re giving people choice about when and how they respond, and allowing them to do so in a more considered way.”

2. Understand people’s threat triggers

A lot of the conversations that recruiters and hiring managers have with candidates can trigger threat with candidates, simply due to the high stakes nature of the conversation for the candidate.  To be compassionate and professional in that conversation, you need to consider how you minimise those threat triggers.

According to Michelle, personal discomfort with certain conversations means many recruiters ‘beat around the bush’ when it comes to delivering feedback. This often makes things worse for the person on the receiving end as it prolongs their uncertainty and increases the threat trigger.

“Be as direct and open as possible, as quickly as possible, to reduce the level of uncertainty. Tell the bad news as soon as you get on the phone,” says Michelle.

3. Be transparent

Openness and transparency are critical to any conversations where there’s an ongoing relationship at stake. This is particularly pertinent in the instance of declining or providing feedback to an internal candidate.  

“You’ve got to be super transparent, but you’ve got to make sure you’re authentic, honest and direct in the way that you do that,” says Michelle.

4. Be Human

In an era when it’s so easy to shoot off a quick email or text message, it can be easy to hide behind a screen to distance yourself from tough conversations.

But if you want to be respected in your game in the long term, Michelle says it’s important to face up to the “human stuff” and to not take the easy way out. You may be dreading having an awkward conversation, but 30-seconds on the phone is much more respectful than an email.

“You make the phone call, you make it short, and you give them space. Then you can follow up with a further feedback email if that’s what you think is necessary.”

5. Write a script

Often recruiters are required to have difficult conversations at scale, and many of these revolve around delivering bad news. It can often help to prepare and rehearse a quick script three-sentence script before you start these conversations.

“Plan out your difficult conversation. Script it. Write out everything you’re going to say in the first two or three sentences for your opening, and plan how you are going to be as compassionate and direct as possible while you tear off the band-aid. Then give yourself ten minutes of prep time before each conversation,” says Michelle.

Of course, the added benefit of writing a basic script is that it can be used for similar conversations in the future.  

“Before you know it, you’ll have practiced your conversation so much you won’t even need the script anymore, and you’ll have different variants and tweaks up your sleeve to use dependent on the specific situation.”

This article is an abridged version of the presentation Michelle’s presentation ‘The Top 5 Difficult Conversations recruiters have and how to master them,’ at ATC2021 DIGITAL. Watch the full playback below.


Cover Image: Source

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