Executive Consultant Katie O’Hara from Connect Communication offers insight on how to approach difficult conversations and people

By Virginia Lau

It’s never easy dealing with upset clients and difficult staff. At a recent lunch workshop, AmCham invited Executive Consultant Katie O’Hara from Connect Communication to discuss and offer advice on how to handle difficult people and deliver bad news such as letting an employee go. “Communication is like a phone number,” says O’Hara, who has been in human resources management and training for more than 20 years. “If you get the wrong number, you can’t get through.”

Basic Considerations

Before getting into how to deal with difficult situations, O’Hara notes that while every case is different, there are some very basic considerations that apply to everybody.

Firstly, accept that we all leave our comfort zone from time to time. When we are having difficult conversations, we are dealing with behavior, which can be switched on and off within a short amount of time. “We can go from being calm and rational to being irrational within seconds if something or someone does something to us,” explains O’Hara. “So when you see it happening in front of you, it’s what we all do. Realize that.”

“United we stand, divided we can’t stand each other,” she continues. No one cooperates with anyone who appears to be against them. Therefore, body language is key. If your arms are crossed or you’re backing away, it can signal that you don’t understand the person and are not prepared to help them. The main focus is communication and finding common ground. Somehow, we need to draw out the similarities rather than highlight the differences because differences cause conflict.

Strategically picking the time and place of confrontation is important too. “I know it probably sounds like common sense but it’s amazing how many times we don’t do that,” says O’Hara.

And finally, always give people the benefit of doubt. Keep an open mind. Instead of judging someone immediately, expect more from them and they might surprise you. “If you’re managing people and you know you’re having difficult conversations with them, instead of saying, ‘You shouldn’t have done that. This is so typical of you’, go in there and say, ‘I know you can do better than this. I know and expect that you can do better things’.”

Golden Rules

Never tell someone to calm down. “In many ways, what you’re saying when you’re asking someone to calm down is ‘I’m not listening to you’,” says O’Hara.

It’s a common reaction to tell an angry person to calm down, but they are not ready to listen and respond positively at that moment. Instead, try to find out the source of the anger in a calm voice yourself.

Don’t take it personally. It’s hard to do when someone suggests that you are not doing your job properly or don’t understand them. “They might emotionally attack you,” says O’Hara. “Don’t take it personally. They are attacking the corporate organization.” This can be especially useful in the service industry.

Listen and be genuine about it. You can pretend to listen, but people can often sense it. Being genuinely curious about what someone is thinking paves the way for smooth communication.

Keep emotions out. “This is the hardest one,” says O’Hara. If you aren’t able to do this, the communication won’t work as well. Handling difficult conversations and people requires you to keep those emotions detached.

Katie O’Hara, Executive Consultant, Connect Communication
Katie O’Hara, Executive Consultant, Connect Communication

The Seven Step Approach

O’Hara offers seven steps to approaching a difficult conversation. It’s important to follow them in order, she advises. Otherwise, like dialing the wrong phone number, you can’t get through.

1. Prepare what you would like to say. If you know you’re going to have a difficult conversation, prepare. The easier difficult conversations are the ones you know that are coming, notes O’Hara.

However, you can only prepare so much as human behavior is unpredictable. “You simply don’t know what kind of response you’re going to get back,” admits O’Hara. “So we can think about some of those golden rules when we’re not prepared.”

2. State the reason for the discussion and keep it short. If it’s about performance, start the meeting by saying, “We’ve come to meet today to talk about how you’re doing performance-wise.”

Make sure there are no sandwiches, says O’Hara. It means do not try and make some nice positives for amends just to sandwich the bad news.”

Delivering bad news is hard and it’s even harder receiving it. People generally want to hear the bad news first and they will appreciate having it said to them upfront. Do not confuse them by giving them good messages because the value will be lost, advises O’Hara.

“But you don’t have to be Donald Trump and say, ‘You’re fired!’ Let’s offer some empathy, dignity, respect and tactfulness when you’re doing this.”

3. Ask the person how they feel or think. Some people might think they’re doing a brilliant job even though you think otherwise. Others might admit they’re not doing a good job. Their response will help you figure out where to start and how to offer your feedback.

But make sure not to react with your opinion. “I once had someone working for me whose behavior was very erratic,” says O’Hara. “I called the meeting and said to her, ‘I’m sensing something is bothering you.’ It was like I lit a match. The attack was on me and I wasn’t expecting it.”

O’Hara says she became defensive and was unable to move on to the next stage as a result.

4. Probe and listen. Ask and seek to understand why employees don’t think you’re managing them well. You need to genuinely want to know the answer because if you don’t, then you can’t help and the conversation will fall apart, says O’Hara. It requires emotions to be kept aside.

5. Acknowledge and say what you feel or think and why. There is an opportunity for you to speak too as a manager. Once the person has had the chance to express one’s thoughts, he or she will be more receptive to listening to you.

“If you’ve got a difficult person to deal with and they don’t feel like they have been heard yet, they will not be listening to you. I guarantee it,” says O’Hara. “Listen first; your time will come.”

6. Suggest and/or ask for ideas. When approaching a difficult conversation you can prepare for, let the other person lead to a degree. Allowing them lead will empower them, which will make them feel that you are listening to them, explains O’Hara. But then come in at some point to control that.

7. Make small agreements. It doesn’t matter how small the agreement is in the end, assures O’Hara. One small agreement can lead to another.

When Faced with Objection

A basic technique O’Hara suggests we use when faced with objection is CAP (concern, action/ask, perspective/position).

Begin with offering concern that is genuine. This can include empathy, sympathy, apology or acknowledgement depending on what is appropriate at this stage. If you say you understand, make sure you truly have been in the same situation and be prepared for someone to challenge that.

After, bring in action or ask if the objection is unknown. Tell the person what you can and cannot do for them. “Most people want to know what you can do for them rather than what you can’t,” says O’Hara.

Lastly, offer your perspective or position. Sometimes we bring in our perspectives too soon because we’re trying to justify ourselves. “It has to come in at the end,” says O’Hara. “It will be better heard and better received when it comes at the end.”