Tough conversations often get a bad rap, and I get it. There was a time when I cringed at the thought of confronting an issue head-on. I had seen quite a few play out in front of me, and never thought the outcome matched what the goal of a “tough” conversation should be.
I witnessed conversations had in the wrong moments, in front of the wrong people, delivered with accusatory and damaging words, and came to the conclusion these conversations rarely got the desired outcome. It was almost heartbreaking to watch.
Instead of the team member leaving the talk determined to improve whatever the deficit was, they felt defeated. Once I was in the position to take the reins and make changes on how tough conversions were delivered in our practice, I started noticing a huge difference in the outcomes and long-term impact.
Ultimately, these conversations became an integral part of our practice culture. I now instill this in every practice I work with. The results continue to support the delivery of tough conversations is key to the optimal outcomes we are all looking for.
Tough conversations in all shapes and sizes
Your team does not need a conversation only when their attitude needs improvement or when punctuality is not their strength. With burnout and compassion fatigue at an all-time high, these conversations are needed for far more than breech of policy or handbook guidelines.
We all know outside sources/personal lives often filter into our work life, and can have a direct effect on performance and behavior. As such, picking up on subtle out-of-character behaviors, recognizing an employee is quieter, or making more mistakes than usual are also reasons for these conversations. In fact, these discussions can bring someone back from the edge, as well as increase the trust an employee has for leadership.
Whether it is addressing a policy breech, a behavior reprimand, or just a conversation to bring clarity and direction to those who may need a helping hand, consistency and delivery is what builds the culture that makes tough conversations expected and appreciated where they were once feared or avoided.
Creating the culture
As uncomfortable as it can be, the best approach is to never let the sun set on an opportunity to have a conversation. This means, do not wait! Whether it is to correct a behavior, or be the shoulder to lean on, the quicker the conversation happens, the less likely a potentially small issue turns into a big one or creates instability within the team.
The team will learn these discussions will not be avoided, their behavior or demeanor will be addressed, and the conversations are not meant to tear them down, but to support and build them up. Most importantly, they provide the needed tools to improve or overcome obstacles. Employees should feel invigorated and inspired to make the changes necessary, instead of deflated.
There will be a shift in the practice culture as the team embraces these moments. Sound too good to be true? It is not!
The following four steps have helped me achieve tough conversations that can inspire and motivate our teams.
1) Ask a question!
“How are you doing today?” “Is everything okay?” It may surprise you when they share the exact reason why you are sitting down with them. This does not happen every time, but once you start creating a culture where situations will be addressed head-on and immediately (on the same day when possible) the team will catch on.
There were many days a team member met me at my office door and said things like, “I spoke to Casey in a rude tone this morning and I think I hurt her feelings. Can we talk to her?”
It is incredible to develop these kinds of open and trusting relationships with your team.
2) Deliver feedback calmly
Talk through your observations in a very calm manner. This may not be easy if it is something you have addressed several times, but from this moment forward you are turning over a new leaf.
It is critical the reason you are having the conversation is presented clearly and calmly. Be mindful not to use the word “you” or phrases like “Casey said.” Instead, try phrases like, “I understand” and “I feel.” An example would be: “I understand how this could be frustrating. What would be a great solution?”
In the beginning, not every team member will be open and receptive to the raw, unfiltered feedback. If you have not had these conversations frequently or in this manner, you can expect varying reactions. There can be shouting, tears, complete shut down and no verbalization, even walking out. I respond the same every time: “I understand how this could cause this response. I will give you a few minutes to collect yourself, but we will finish this conversation.”
This is where all of your emotional intelligence will really pay off! Not all responses will be bad, though. There are probably members on your team fully willing to embrace it right away. There will be aha! moments and appreciation for this approach. I have witnessed a giant lightbulb go off and behaviors permanently altered from just bringing awareness to them. If you are consistent, the reactions should get better with time. Individuals who cannot handle these head-on tough conversations will often move on, which is best for both parties.
3) Create an action plan and accountability
During every tough conversation, I review potential roadblocks that will potentially hinder them and work with team members to create an action plan. In the action plan, I identify any resources I need to provide, set clear expectations with a timeline, and set a date to reconnect for a check-in. At the end of the conversation, I always ask team members to tell me how they are feeling. “Good” or “sad” will never count in my book.
We will work together to find a word with substance. It is human nature to be somewhat dismissive when we are upset. Encouraging them to think of a feeling word with some substance helps them sort through and identify how they are truly feeling. It gives me a solid understanding of what I am facing when coaching them and provides a pulse on the determination of that individual to make the necessary changes. I tell people, “When you stand up from this table, you are a different person. You’ve got this, and I’ve got you and the team has you.”
4) Follow up and celebrate often!
The team needs to know you are just as invested in their success in overcoming whatever hurdle is put in front of them. Celebrate every victory, even if it is tiny. It helps get the momentum you need to keep forward progress.
In this industry, I have seen individuals wrestle with demons from their past and sometimes present. It takes time to fight those demons. I envision every time I praise them or offer my unwavering support, they get stronger and start believing in themselves more. In return, you get a much more stable and productive team member.
Having open and tough conversations is a culture one has to create and practice. It may take time for you to become more comfortable delivering them. With the understanding of how important they are, however, and with the results you see almost immediately, you will no longer dread them, you will look forward to them. A tough conversation can change someone’s life—in the world we live in now it could actually save a life.
Emily Shiver, CVPM, CCFP, CVBL, is a certified veterinary practice manager serving as the Florida regional director of operations for Family Vet Group. Her passion is creating and maintaining positive, successful workplace cultures, as well as helping practices increase revenue and the client experience. Shiver enjoys every aspect of inventory and strives to help practices meet and exceed their inventory goals. She and her husband reside in Lakeland, Fla., with their two Patterdale terriers and a few other furry family members.