Photo courtesy of Duke Corporate Education
Jared Bleak: Dangerous conversations
An executive director of Duke Corporate Education offers a four-step strategy for leaders facing conversations that are difficult, tense or even dangerous.
March 16, 2010 | Editor's note: How to have a difficult conversation is one of the topics covered in Leadership Education's October 2010 event, Denominational Leadership: Transitioning into an Executive Role.
When a leader must fire someone, give a bad performance review or have another kind of difficult conversation, it’s important to balance justice and mercy and advocacy with inquiry, said Jared Bleak, an executive director of Duke Corporate Education.
One way to do that is to adopt an attitude of seeking information rather than advocating for a position, said Bleak, who designs and delivers educational programs for clients and serves as a teacher, facilitator and coach at Duke Corporate Education.
He has taught in the United States, Europe and Asia with clients including Siemens, Schering, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Progress Energy, Rio Tinto and Lafarge. Bleak received his bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University and his master’s degree and doctorate from Harvard University. Before coming to Duke, he was at Harvard, where his research focused on organizational culture, leadership and governance.
Bleak recently spoke with Faith & Leadership about a four-step process for approaching difficult conversations. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: How do you recommend that pastoral leaders approach difficult conversations?
The essence of leadership is being able to have difficult conversations with difficult people at difficult times. The potential hazards are compounded [for pastoral leaders] because they are seen as someone who should give mercy but they’re also very much in a role of justice.
Most people think we’re good at these types of conversations with no preparation or forethought, and most of the time that leads us to make a bad situation worse.
Often we are in an advocacy mode; we have a point we want to make and are not listening to the other person. It’s important to have inquiring minds, to think of questions to open up this conversation and help me understand what’s happening in someone’s head.
Rather than listing all the things we’re going to say, balance advocacy with inquiry by preparing a list of questions we need to ask.
Q: Why would you need information or data from a person who, say, is having job performance issues? Or, in an extreme example, when a person is being fired?
Those situations are actually where you need data the most. As a leader, you want to get data from the place where you least want to hear it. Someone you are going to fire is going to point out issues that other people won’t because they don’t want to give bad news. It is important for a leader to get as much information as they can.
You know what the outcome is going to be, but you want to at least have some sort of conversation, especially in a church setting. This is a setting where empathy, mercy and love hold sway. As Christians, we need to be able to do what’s right but also do it in the right way.
Q: You generally work with business leaders. How does your strategy of dealing with difficult conversations apply to leaders in the church?
As a leader in the church, the expected outcome to the conversation never lessens our responsibility to seek to provide mercy, to get information, to learn and to help to the extent that we can and that is appropriate.
I don’t refer to it this way in a business setting, but my belief system is rooted in the example of Jesus as a communicator. He provided justice but he also was very merciful in his conversations.
In all of his leadership activities people were important, programs less so. Communication is all about connecting with that person across from you. It is about understanding their doubts, fears and issues, being able to deliver your message and come to some resolution that helps both to move forward.
Q: How can someone prepare for difficult conversations?
First off, consider the audience. Every good communicator needs to think about the attitudes or idiosyncrasies of the person they’re going to be speaking to. After that, you have to ask yourself a couple of questions: What do I most want to get from this conversation? What do I not want to have happen from this conversation? Thinking through the different sides helps you devise a simple strategy for the types of things you want to convey and the questions you want to ask.
I’m a big proponent of role playing. You’re sitting in your office and you call one of your peers and say, “I’m preparing for a conversation; let me play out how I think this is going to go and have you give me some advice. I’ll talk with you around how I’m going to start the conversation, or I’m going to deliver this line and I want you to react and see where it goes from there.”
This is about practice. Olympic athletes prepare and prepare and practice and practice and practice for that one moment. As professional leaders we never do.
One of the things that I teach is keeping in mind a simple structure for difficult or dangerous conversations. It’s a four-step process. The first step is to structure the conversation. You might say, “Jim, I want to speak with you for 30 minutes. I want to talk about a few things that are on my mind around your performance. I want to tell you things that I’ve noticed and ask a few questions; then I want to hear your perspective. After that we’re going to figure out the way forward.”
That structure is very easy. Set a structure. If we start by setting a structure for our conversation, we make our agenda open. We set things out and say, “This is where we are going to go.” That’s very helpful.
Q: You use the terms “difficult” and “dangerous” to describe these conversations. What do you mean by that word dangerous?
The term “dangerous conversations” is applicable where there is a risk that if we don’t do it well the conversation can be hazardous for us; there’s a greater likelihood that we won’t handle it well and it will get worse. That’s the dangerous element.
Those conversations could happen anywhere. They can happen in the workplace, in the church, between friends and between church leaders. They can happen in our families.
Q: So the first step is explicitly laying out the structure with the person.
The first step is to set structure. The second step is to get data. The third step is to give data -- those two steps can be interchanged -- and the fourth step is what I call “making sense.” It means to figure out where we’re going from here.
In a church setting it’s very appropriate to figure out the way forward in a collaborative fashion.
Q: If you know the person needs to be terminated, how can it be collaborative? Don’t you come to the conversation with an agenda?
If you’re terminating someone, making sense might be about some continuation of the relationship or helping them get on their feet in the shorter term or the arrangements for how the separation is going to work.
If it’s a disciplinary action, the making sense can be more involved. Getting information from that person is going to help create an environment for that person to succeed after the disciplining. You don’t want to discipline someone and leave them on their own without appropriate support. Making sense is a two-way process, and conversations are always two-way.