Keys To Navigating Successfully Through Tough Conversations With Employees – Forbes

Business woman delivering bad news

It’s a common misconception that communication is simply about providing information. Effective communication is primarily about the ability to build rapport and establish trust.” Thank you to Forbes and Kathy Caprino for sharing the insight of our unique communications training programs and how that knowledge can be put to use by a myriad of business verticals in this inspiring interview.

Originally published on as part of Kathy Caprino’s series “Supporting Today’s Workforce”

After 18 years in corporate life, I became a marriage and family therapist and career coach. During my training for both roles, I learned a good deal (that I unfortunately didn’t know when I was in my corporate jobs) about how we need to communicate—both verbally and non-verbally—to effectively help people deal with hard times and bad news. This is an even more essential skill when we’re delivering life-changing news that will impact individuals in ways they will never forget.

Through this work, I’ve also observed another of life’s realities: If you don’t authentically feel compassion and empathy for the individual you’re speaking with, you just won’t be successful trying to fake it. The energy and truth of your emotions and beliefs will reveal themselves, no matter what words you are using.

In tough times like these when we’re being tasked to have very difficult conversations that impact people’s lives, it’s critical to hone our communication skills so that we can share the information we need to, but do it in ways that support people and help them feel heard and understood, not crushed and alone.

To learn more about what we need to understand to navigate effectively through our difficult work conversations, I caught up with Dr. Anthony Orsini, a practicing neonatologist who has had to deliver bad news to patients and their families for decades. Orsini founded The Orsini Way aimed at helping healthcare professionals master compassionate communication and improve patient outcomes. Now, he’s helping business leaders apply these same principles and learn how to better empathize with employees. He recently released his first book, It’s All In the Delivery: Improving Healthcare Starting with a Single Conversationavailable May 13, 2020.

Here’s what Orsini shares:

Kathy Caprino: Dr. Orsini, as we all know, these are extremely challenging times, and business leaders are now tasked with having some very tough conversations with their employees. From a doctor’s perspective, what should a business leader and manager know about delivering difficult news and how should they approach these conversations?

Dr. Anthony Orsini: With more than 20 years of experience delivering difficult news to patients and families, I can tell you without hesitation that there is a right way and a wrong way to deliver difficult news. It’s extremely important to handle these conversations the right way because these critical moments can have lasting effects on people, and they’ll remember the smallest details about the conversation that changed their lives.

Bad news comes in different shapes and sizes, but whether you are telling someone they have cancer or informing an employee that they are being separated from the company, the principles of effective and compassionate communication are the same. These conversations are never easy, but we can be better prepared to have them. It’s important to think of the ability to have these conversations as a skill to be proud of, rather than a task that just needs to get done.

When approaching a difficult conversation with an employee, it’s critical to understand that this conversation will likely spark raw and real emotion, but there are methods that, if followed correctly, can make the conversation go more smoothly and help the person on the receiving end of the bad news cope in the both the short and long term.

Caprino: What are some common mistakes you’ve seen in medical communication training that translate into business communication as well?

Orsini:  It’s a common misconception that communication is simply about providing information. Effective communication is primarily about the ability to build rapport and establish trust. No one enjoys having difficult conversations, and more often than not, our tendency is to rush through the process, especially for those who have not been properly trained.

I’ve seen medical professionals try to “cut to the chase” and break bad news right away. However, once the bad news is delivered the patient and family won’t hear what is said afterward. The same goes for business. If you have important background information to give, start there and build up to the news. This doesn’t mean you need to draw it out—you can realistically get to the news in a minute or so—but it will prevent your employee from feeling blindsided.

Another thing I’ve observed throughout my experience is that many people believe that strong communication skills are inherent and that some people are just naturally better at handling these conversations than others. While that may be true for a very small percentage of people, compassionate communication is a learned skill that takes practice and preparation.

If someone can commit to improving their communication skills, understanding verbal and non-verbal language and developing a proper plan prior to having these conversations, they will feel better equipped and less anxious about having a difficult dialogue with an employee and the conversation will go much more smoothly.

Caprino:  How can business leaders better empathize with their employees and convey compassion while having these conversations?

Orsini:  Weneed to go beyond just “putting yourself in their shoes.” It is crucial that your employees know that you understand their situation and are genuinely compassionate. The only way to do that is by realistically imagining yourself as your employee and ask yourself, “How would I want to hear this news?”

Also, keep in mind that words matter, so choose every word you say carefully. I’ve learned that replacing one word with another can make the difference between causing anger or conveying empathy. Even in situations where the future might be uncertain, such as those surrounding the COVID-19 crisis, using phrases such as “I am concerned” instead of “I think” shows compassion even in unpredictable circumstances.

Caprino: What about non-verbal language? What can we do to demonstrate compassion non-verbally?

Orsini: Yes, we need to pay close attention to our non-verbal language as well. Our brains are hardwired to assess the threat of every situation. The second you call an employee into a discussion, they are analyzing your body language to determine if this will be good news or bad news. Even if you say all the right things, if your non-verbal language does not show compassion, the employee will perceive your words as disingenuous—and in this case, perception is reality.

There are several nonverbal ways to show compassion. For example, it is extremely important that everyone is seated–comfortably–before any serious conversation takes place. Sitting sends the nonverbal message that you are not in a hurry and you understand the gravity of the situation. Also, embrace the silence. This is not an easy thing to do, but it sends an emotional message that you are listening and comfortable with the situation.

Finally, maintain eye contact, don’t rush your dialogue, and be ready to adapt based on their reaction.

Caprino: What would you tell someone who is struggling to break bad news to an employee?

Orsini: If you’re anxious about having a difficult conversation, first take a few moments to calm down and make sure you’ve determined a good plan of action. You can also prepare by learning the basic fundamentals of delivering bad news (such as some of the nonverbal skills discussed above) and keep in mind having difficult conversations is a skill that can be learned and mastered.

If you have never been properly trained, you will naturally be uncomfortable with the conversation and it will show, but if you feel confident in your ability you will view the process as a responsibility and not a task.

Caprino: What led you to expand The Orsini Way training program from beyond the healthcare field and into the business world?

Orsini: I realized early in my career that the anxiety and stress around these types of conversations is not specific to the healthcare field and the same communication techniques that are effective in delivering bad news to a patient also apply to business leaders and employees.

I’ve lectured and trained many business executives and HR professionals on the proper techniques for having difficult conversations, but recently, due to the COVID-19 crisis, business leaders have reached out to me for advice at an even more rapid pace. By expanding The Orsini Way training program beyond healthcare, we’re able to help executives learn valuable communication techniques that will help them navigate through this crisis and carry them into the future.

Caprino: Finally, how can the principles in your new book, It’s All In The Delivery, be applied to business leaders?

Orsini: Although the book was primarily written for healthcare providers, most of the techniques apply to the difficult conversations business leaders and HR executives will need to have as well. Effective leaders are those skilled at communication, even under the most difficult situations. The communication techniques covered in my workshops and book help any leader evaluate their communication skills, improve employee engagement, increase loyalty and avoid fallout from the interactions that don’t go well.

To learn more, visit The Orsini Way and the book It’s All In the Delivery.

To build more success in your work and communications, work with Kathy Caprino in her Career Breakthrough Coaching programs and read her new book The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss.

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