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Make tough talk plain sailing

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Thorny issues are easier to discuss if you say what you mean and mean what you say

We support patients through difficult prognoses – at times we are the only person they are honest with about their fears and concerns. So how can we use our existing skills to support staff through potentially life-changing and difficult discussions as a result of cuts and restructuring?

Tips on how to prepare for a difficult meeting

  • Know what you need to talk about – what are the facts, details and timescales
  • Know who you will talk to and whether there are any personal issues that will come to the fore
  • Know where to go for support when you feel anxious of if you are concerned
  • Know the logistics – the where and when the meeting is scheduled to be held and how long it is expected to last
  • When running a meeting, tackle the issue and say what it is: We can become entangled in fuzzy terms when giving bad news. Describe the purpose of the meeting in one sentence – be specific and outline a short agenda. Look the person in the eye and keep papers to a minimum.
  • Allow some emotional response – it’s OK to empathise: Emotions are what we can fear most but remember your existing skills of listening, empathising and keeping control. There ought to be some emotional response on hearing bad news. Allow for it – find a balance between not disregarding the emotion but not allowing it to overwhelm the meeting. If the person is too upset, adjourn. Leave the room and allow them to compose themselves. Start again as soon as it is possible.
  • You may need to repeat what you are saying: Most people react with stunned silence. The information is not always heard first time around so say it again and ask if they understand. The person will remember the words you use, so keep it to the point and use “I” and “you” rather than “we”. Prepare the words you will use and be authentic.
  • Know some answers and know when you need to refer back: Sometimes even with considerable preparation a question is asked to which you don’t know the answer. Give a date when you will come back after finding out the answer and stick to it.
  • Silence will happen: Thirty seconds can seem like a lifetime but some people need to reflect on what has been said and then respond. Don’t try to fill the silence.
  • Support the decision: This can be tough but it does not help the person if the discussion is positioned as something you would rather not do. Prepare an answer to “what do you think of this?” and be authentic in your response. This meeting is about your colleague, not you – keep your personal feelings to a minimum.
  • Close the meeting: Summarise and be specific about next steps.
  • Follow up: Stick to the timetable and keep an open door to the individuals. They will have a range of feelings and concerns – this is the time to be available for chats and support.

Linda Burke works with public, not-for-profit, professional services  and retail organisations. She offers support in change management, leadership and team development. Her company, Newton HR, helps with change and employment issues

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