Managing Hard Conversations

Connecting is crucial, even when it is over bad news
August 27, 2020 Updated: August 27, 2020

The other day, I was on a call with the leader of a manufacturing company and he was talking about how this pandemic has put a huge pinch on his business. One of his unfortunate roles as the leader of this company is being the bearer of bad news and having the hard conversations about furlough with his employees. Even when they’ve been able to bring back some of those furloughed employees, they avoided him and looked at him like the face of death itself. 

Hard conversations are part of our reality as the economic constraints from this pandemic start to make themselves known. That’s why the mindset of human connection is crucial. In this new arena, we’ve got to think about how we connect in order to be relevant on the other side. People are going to get furloughed and laid off, and because we’re meaning-seeking, emotional, social beings who thrive on connection, our relationship portfolio is our greatest asset—especially in a crisis. 

If you’re a leader and you truly value people, there’s nothing easy about this. Even if you’re good at it, it takes a toll. So, how do we have these hard conversations yet still keep the relationship intact? We have to develop the mindset of delivering bad news with dignity and respect. 

The first thing to do, if you know a hard conversation is coming up, is prepare. Automatically, you’re going to go into a sympathetic state. You will go into a state of fight, flight, or freeze, where your anxieties go up. Prepare to bring that energy down so that it sets an emotional temperature that’s more manageable for the conversation. Pre-engagement preparation is a great way to do that. It takes less than five minutes. 

Five to 10 minutes before the conversation, go to a quiet area where you won’t be interrupted, close your eyes, take three deep, lower-body breaths, and slowly say, “I have time.” Repeat this process three times. Then ask and answer the following questions out loud: “Who am I? Why am I here? What do they need from me?” Finally, open your eyes and do some ballistic movement, such as push-ups, jumping jacks, or stretches.

The more direct you can be, the better. People don’t expect you to be nice to them, but they expect you to be straight with them. That doesn’t mean that we hurt feelings or that we’re cold, it simply means that we are nested. Nesting your actions in the context of the larger purpose of the organization is always a useful mindset and will be a great anchor point in a difficult conversation.

You also have to be careful about damaging someone’s identity. We all assess our worth in the context of other people. Without even meaning to, you can make a hurtful comment about someone’s performance or economic relevance. “Nonessential,” in many cases, can be a harmful term. We’ve got to be careful about how we use words in this context because, as humans, we take things right to our core. 

A few years ago, I was coaching an Afghan army officer about how his folks weren’t properly pulling security on patrol. He took that right to his identity. I should have started that conversation by saying: “Hey, your soldiers are great soldiers. They’re motivated and working hard. There are a few little areas that they need to work on. Would it be OK if I share that with you?” Do you see the difference? 

If you’re going to have to have a hard conversation, it’s important to rehearse. As a whole, we don’t rehearse enough for our high-stakes engagements. Taking the time to rehearse the engagement before it happens is critical.

After the hard conversation, have a micro recovery, even if it’s just turning off the lights in your office and doing some deep breathing to bring yourself back into a parasympathetic state. Give yourself permission to recover and metabolize that anxiety out of your body. Otherwise it starts to stack up, especially if you have to deliver a lot of hard conversations. 

Those are some tips that you can put into play right away to improve your mindset regarding hard conversations. Prepare, be direct, nest your actions in the larger purpose of the organization, be careful about damaging the person’s identity, rehearse, and recover. I hope that serves you in these trying times, and remember: Fear is contagious, but so is leadership.

Scott Mann is a former Green Beret who specialized in unconventional, high-impact missions and relationship building. He’s the founder of Rooftop Leadership and appears frequently on TV and many syndicated radio programs. For more information, visit