“Eat that frog”.
It was a great piece of advice, and it helped me a lot last week, when I needed to make three difficult phone calls.
The theory is simple:
If you eat a frog each morning (do the most difficult thing on your to-do list first), you’ll have the rest of your day free to do other things.
Otherwise, you’ll worry about the frog on your plate all day, and be less productive.
Pressing ‘Call’ is one thing.
Having the conversation is something else entirely.
Here is our guide to having difficult conversations – to make sure you and your audience leave satisfied with the way you’ve dealt with it.
In my first graduate job in 2010, I remember being so worked up about a call I needed to make to a client in London that I simply hit ‘Call’ to get it over and done with.
I remember thinking:
“Best to be proactive, and I’m sure they’ll understand”.
I was wrong.
I was telling the client that, although I’d promised I’d have a job completed for her by this morning, I’d been unable to even start it due to other commitments.
In short, she wasn’t a priority.
Looking back now, I’m horrified by my approach, and it seems so obviously wrong.
When you’re in the heat of the moment and you’ve justified a decision in a group, on paper or simply in your head, write that down.
Note what the decision is, the reasons for it, and therefore the objective of the call.
That will help as your guiding star when you are inevitably met with criticism, anger or disappointment.
That call ended with my boss calling me into his office and telling me:
“Just so you know, I phoned her back and hung you out to dry”.
I hardly blamed him.
I now know to clarify my objectives and the reasoning for the decision before the call’s made.
Empathy clothes itself in different outfits.
The first is in tone.
The wrong tone – too flat, too strident, too apologetic – can anger the audience.
Great tone means matching the words with the appropriate empathy in your voice.
Practice the statements before you say them (in your head if you have to), and make sure they match up.
The second is in content and structure.
I worked with a client in Edinburgh that was announcing a rebrand.
They intended to bury the bad news in a statement at the end of the presentation – that there was a possibility of job losses.
They wanted to avoid ruining the positivity around the rebrand.
“You need to say that first”, I urged.
“And you need to say sorry”.
Only if you express empathy – and put the bad news first – will your audience listen to what you have to say afterwards.
Here’s how to express empathy properly in your communication.
Finally, if you’re meeting face-to-face, be acutely aware of body language.
You need to make eye contact and face the music head-on.
It’s easy to fudge detail when you’re under pressure.
I received a call last year from BT, cancelling our planned appointment with an engineer to install broadband in our offices.
“Our engineers are all busy today. We have also run out of routers but hopefully they’ll be back in stock soon”.
The disappointment of the first piece of news was only compounded by the second.
We call words like ‘hopefully’, ‘quite’, ‘try’ and ‘do our best’ watering down words.
They dilute the commitment you’re able to offer.
Far better to work out a solution for your customer before you call, and commit to that.
I really wanted to hear:
“Sorry we’re unable to fulfil that as promised, we’ve scheduled too many appointments today by mistake. How are you placed for Monday 10am, Tuesday 4pm or Friday all day?”
I was working in Glasgow this week, when a client told me what one quality he felt epitomised a great leader.
“Someone who cares about your answer when asking you how you are”
“And they’ll miss their next appointment to listen to you”
If somebody wants to rant, to question or to argue, take your time to listen to them.
Like a kettle, your audience will want to boil and let off steam.
If you smother them, they will continue to boil, and you’ll get scolded.
Let them show emotion if they want to.
They need to process the information.
Your job is to maintain control – and to be there for them if they want questions answered.
I love Channel 4’s programme Gogglebox, in which everyday TV viewers are filmed in their homes reacting to events on the telly.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May was the subject of ire and ridicule last week.
She continually failed to answer questions in her communication with BBC’s Andrew Marr.
“Answer the question!” shouted one.
“She’s stuttering, she’s in trouble” added another.
“The May-bot is in full flow” quipped a third.
We hate failure to answer questions.
All our media training experience in Madrid, Paris, Munich and Zurich says that hatred is universal.
So equip yourself with direct answers:
“Yes”, “No”, “I don’t know” and “it’s too early to say”.
These four answers can be applied at will to help you satisfy the audience’s questions, yet retain control.
Here’s more on that.
If you keep talking, you’ll end up talking nonsense.
Worse, you’ll commit to something, to which you’re unable to commit.
We’ve all been there – we make a difficult call, the person takes it badly, so we hastily step in to soften the blow by committing to doing something else.
Then we hang up and feel the dread of now having to see that through.
Yes, delivering the news is painful in the short term.
But once you’ve explained your case, expressed empathy and listened, now is the time for silence.
To finish the call.
After all, you want both parties to be satisfied – and that includes you.
Written by Andrew McFarlan, the Managing Director of Pink Elephant Communications. You can view his full profile here.
Photos by: Calum MacAulay, David Paschke, ukhomeoffice [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, https://www.flickr.com/photos/24931020@N02/, Luigi Rosa via Foter.com / CC BY-SA
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