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    Delivering Difficult Messages

    By: Jeff Gau
    February 20, 2020

    When was the last time you had to share a difficult message? As a leader, it may not have been that long ago. Even if you lead the best team or high-performing organization, there will be times when you have to “talk” about the tough stuff.

    Celebrating wins and doing the “rah, rah speeches” are more fun. But talking about weaknesses and opportunities to improve are just as important to future success. As leaders, we need to be able to share them both well. How would you rate yourself?

    Effective communication is defined by the receiver. Tough messages don’t have to be perceived poorly. It can be quite the opposite, when they are delivered well. They can build trust.

    Difficult messages are more complex to share. We need to approach them differently as leaders. Here’s what I have learned:

    • Be upfront.
      Get in front of any difficult message and be clear and concise in your delivery. Dragging your feet only puts you at a disadvantage and compromises trust. People will start drawing their own conclusions and the grapevine takes over. Communicate a difficult message as early as you can with the key audiences — in a systematic fashion (starting with your leadership team).

    • Show your openness to frank discussions.
      You have to be willing to engage in dialogue. In fact, you might want to even promote and prompt questions if they are not readily being asked. Bring up a question or two that you expect to be on their minds. Lead with a hard question. It demonstrates your openness and authenticity, both of which go a long way in building trust and confidence. They want to see your confidence and feel your honesty.

    • Provide context.
      Difficult messages are sensitive. People will interpret them differently and almost always based on how it personally impacts them. As leaders, we need to recognize that and work to show them the bigger picture and provide context. I often lead with context to help everyone better understand the core message. I like to use a story, example or metaphor to convey it in a relatable manner.

    • Share the impact.
      Help people understand why the decision was made or something positive that did or will come out of the situation. This typically follows the context and core message, but in some cases, I lead with this. Starting with the “why” can be a more effective way to capture and keep attention.

    Tough messages don’t have to be downers. Correctly done, people will appreciate the candor and, in fact, may be more committed to the outcome. Effectively sharing a difficult message can bring your team together, build trust, increase confidence and even be inspirational.

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