How hostage negotiation skills can take out the heat off a tough conversation with your employee

Many managers feel that the worst part of being a manager is to have a tough conversation with their employees. Second only to laying off someone. We prefer as managers to focus on meeting our goals and solving challenges.

Just last week I answered two questions on the topic. One was “How do I tell my employee he has bad body odor and that people stay away from him.” The second was “How do I tell my employee that his complements might feel offensive or disturbing.”

Should I wait?

When we are faced with situations like this, we usually feel bad. We don’t like these conversations, we tend to postpone the tough conversations. We do that because we don’t want to be the ones who hurt someone else. We don’t want to get into an argument about something which is very sensitive.

But you must have a conversation. No matter what. What will happen if you don’t? Someone will get hurt. The problem won’t go away. It will get worse and then it will be harder to handle it. For example, someone will complain about sexual harassment in your team. You will be investigated for not stopping it. Maybe your employee with bad odor will leave as people don’t want any relationship with him and now you have to recruit someone new. It takes at least 6 months to get that team productivity back! You have to take action!

What can the best hostage negotiator teach us?

In his book “Never split the difference” (I’m not an affiliate), Chris Voss describes a technique called “accusation audit”. It is used to air all negative feeling at the beginning of a meeting and to address the worst assumptions in the room so they wont effect the rest of the negotiation. It also helps to build trust and shows you are emphatic to how the other side feels.

The technique is to think about what are the worst accusations the other side might feel or think about you. For example – “They try to rob us and take all the profit”.

At the beginning of the conversation you start with “You might think that we are trying to rob you and take all the profit”. Saying that out loud enables the other side to feel you are acknowledging their fears and emotions. Then you can start talking about why this is not true. It lowers the guard and reduces negative energy. It actually increases the trust between the 2 groups at the table (If you are negotiating).

Accusation audit for tough conversation

The technique can also be used to prepare someone for a difficult conversation. For example: “What I’m going to tell you might disturb you and make you feel angry.” When your boss says that to you, you prepare for your worst case scenario in your head which usually is far worse than what he will actually say. As a manager, when you share with your employee what’s going on, they are mentally prepared to receive the negative feedback.

Another important part of the conversation will be to emphasize that the goal of this conversation is not to bash the employee but to keep him safe and to contribute to his success. For example: “Alex, you are doing a great job and it’s important to me to make sure you are successful now and in the future. I’m going to share with you something right now because you are a valuable member of my team and I want to keep it that way in the future”

Tell the facts, not what you think

When you go into details, do not use language that will feel accusatory or offensive. Do it from a position of genuinely caring for him. “Jeremy, when we work with you in the same room we smell a bad odor which you probably understands makes people to want to keep some distance. I hope it’s not a health problem and that there is something we can do about it because I want you to succeed and feel great in this team.”

In this example, I didn’t say “You have bad body odor” as it may feel that I’m blaming him for something that he might not be aware or maybe can’t actually control. I describe whats going on and how people can interpret that or react to the situation.

Close with empowerment

At the end of my example I repeated the employee role and significance in the team to enforce the understanding how significant he is and that the conversation is about helping him and not bashing him.

After you have done that, stay quiet. Even if it takes 10 seconds (yes, it’s hard). Let your employee talk, let him respond. Listen carefully to what he has to say and respond accordingly.

If he resists, you can reiterate what you said without accusing him and close again with empowering message about his value.

Bottom Line

When we tell people how we think they are going to feel when we tell them something, they usually prepare for the worst case and respond better to the actual conversation.

Experiment with Accusation audit and refine it based on the reactions you get.

Share your experience

Did you enjoy this article? Please take a moment and share it along with a comment that describes your takeaway. Feel free to mention me so I get notified. That would be very helpful.

Thank you for reading this.

Nir Megnazi – Leadership Coach

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