Difficult Conversations in Business: Lessons Learned from the ICU

The economic fallout of the global pandemic has resulted in an influx of layoffs and furloughs, leading to many difficult conversations between employers, employees, staffing agencies, and candidates. Delivering tough news in a professional setting is never easy, but it’s especially challenging when the discussion involves separating an employee from a company.

In many ways, difficult dialogues in business run parallel to difficult dialogues in medicine. From my time as a neonatologist, I’ve taken the lessons I’ve learned from breaking bad news to patients and their loved ones and applied them to the workplace. Communication training is now more important than ever, as many business leaders may feel under-prepared to handle pandemic-fueled uncomfortable situations.

In fact, data published in consulting firm DDI’s Frontline Leader Project found that frontline managers rate difficult conversations as one of their top challenges, even prior to the Covid-19’s emergence.

In medicine and in business, strong communication skills are, by and large, not inherent. Compassionate communication is a learned skill that takes practice and preparation. The following tips can help you more easily navigate these difficult conversations and ensure all staffing professionals and HR leaders are communicating with empathy and compassion.

Develop a plan. 

Have a detailed, well-thought-out plan before starting the conversation. This involves not just thinking through how to deliver the news but also anticipating the reaction and preparing to adjust. Planning for an uncomfortable conversation should include a healthy dose of imagination: think of how you would react to this news yourself, and make necessary changes based on empathy. Knowing what needs to be accomplished in the conversation and how to get there can help diffuse some of the anxiety around delivering bad news.

Choose your words carefully. 

Words matter; it’s important to choose every word carefully. Think beyond just definition and focus on connotation, as each word may evoke a unique feeling to the person receiving it. This is further amplified when emotions are running high. Even in situations with a lot of uncertainty, such as the Covid-19 crisis, using phrases such as “I am concerned” instead of “I think” shows compassion and empathy even in unpredictable circumstances.

Don’t rush. 

Avoid the temptation to rush through the delivery of bad news. You don’t have to draw the conversation out, but take a moment to add context and important background information before immediately delivering tough news. This will prevent the employee from feeling blindsided.

You must also consider the tone, cadence, and inflection of the words spoken to avoid seeming insensitive or rude. A rapid cadence, for example, is often interpreted by the listener as rushed and anxious. Proper use of pauses at critical times can transmit feelings of compassion and sensitivity toward the situation.

Don’t forget non-verbal language. 

Research by UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian found that 7% of messages are derived from words, 38% from tone, and 55% from body language. When an employee is called into a conversation, one of the first things they will do is analyze the manager’s body language to determine if this will be good news or bad news.

There are several nonverbal ways to show compassion. For example, make sure everyone is seated comfortably before any serious conversation takes place. This sends the nonverbal message that you understand the gravity of the situation and are not waiting with one foot out the door. Embracing the silence, while difficult to do, is also an important nonverbal cue for sending the emotional message that you are listening and comfortable.

Actively listen. 

Active listening is defined as the ability to fully concentrate on a speaker, understanding what is being said and thoughtfully responding. This is a skill that is learned and developed with practice and key to delivering difficult news with compassion.

You can add more compassion to these difficult conversations by giving employees time to respond and ask questions. Actively listening to their feedback and thoughtfully responding to their questions demonstrates respect and concern for their perspective.

It’s never easy to deliver bad news, but honing communication skills with training can help staffing and HR leaders handle these situations more effectively and communicate more compassionately.

Anthony Orsini
Dr. Anthony Orsini is a practicing neonatologist and founder of The Orsini Way, a training program that shows healthcare professionals a way to communicate that enhances patient satisfaction and improves outcomes. He is also the author of “It’s All In The Delivery: Improving Healthcare Starting With A Single Conversation” and recently launched his podcast: Difficult Conversations – Lessons I Learned an ICU Physician.


Originally posted on The Staffing Stream

Share this post!