Speaking In Difficult Situations
I am often asked by people managers about communicating under pressure; how to balance staying strong and non-threatening in a “difficult situation” like a performance appraisal or with a mistrustful group.
Working with people is one of the most difficult juggling acts we perform and many of us do it everyday, at home and at work. Finely turned interpersonal communication skills and a basis of empathy is needed, especially if you are supporting the personal and professional growth of others.
There are many ways to be both non-threatening and strong when working in potentially difficult situations. And “difficult” can refer to many situations including those that are uncomfortable, frightening or require sensitive handling. I’m going to focus on just 4 ways for a Manager to use their body and words when communicating under pressure with staff. These techniques are also useful when facilitating groups:
1. Room Set Up
Create a sense of trust, credibility and security in physical environment by:
- Manager to take the “authority” position, which means to keep a solid wall behind and a clear view of what’s in front with easy access to all tools and room to move. Taking an authoritative position allows you to stay physically strong and hold the space – you are in charge. Avoid creating a power imbalance like the classic joke of a manager dwarfing the participant with a big, high desk. You may like to set up arm chairs for informality or to create a sense of approachability.
- Invite the staff member to sit comfortably with “room to move”, access to any needed tools and most of all, PRIVACY.
2. The SOLAR Posture
Use the SOLAR posture – a non threatening but physically strong stance demonstrating openness and receptivity, implying “I can handle it”.
- Sitting – knees apart, lean forward slightly to show interest, and palms are open and facing the staff member or group.
- Standing – fully face the staff member or group. Strong, wide legged stance (like the letter “A”) with palms open toward the staff member or group. Keep shoulders dropped, chest open and speak slowly with lots of appropriate eye contact and acknowledgement.
3. Explain Format, Purpose & Outcome
Everyone feels better and like they have a choice, when they understand where they are going, the reason and the benefit to them of the meeting or presentation.
- Manager gives a respectful welcome, full face, eye contact, tell the staff member or group that you are going to begin by briefly outlining the format (structure), purpose and intended outcome of the session. Check their understanding and gain their permission to continue. After all, this is a 2 way conversation between adults, not an information dump or lecture.
- Manager to summarise the main points at the end, check for agreement and leave genuine space for the staff member or group to provide feedback.
4. Edging Out
When a fire is burning out of control, you don’t give it more fuel. If the staff member or groups’ behaviour is inappropriate, as the Manager you can take control by:
- Acknowledge the person or situation respectfully and honestly,
- Use body language to reduce attention to them – turn your body side on (edging out), reduce or remove eye contact and if there are others, increase your positive interaction with them to tap into group dynamics of peer pressure. At no point belittle or expose, just acknowledge, reduce and refocus. Trust your gut – sometimes the unexpected works.
- Explain clearly what your next steps will be, the consequences if you don’t and then follow through your steps. If you are working with a group, don’t let one person wreck the experience of everyone else – your job is to work with the whole group and if necessary, ask the trouble maker to leave. Keep the group energy focused and don’t let it dissipate through distraction.
- If the process or presentation is completely disrupted and cannot continue, take control by acknowledging the situation and stating that you are now ending it. Offer rescheduling options if appropriate. Then, go and reflect and find your own mentor to debrief and reassess the situation.
Always work with people from a place of firm compassion. This is both non threatening and strong. Don’t forget; this is a human being in front of you. Some days we wear pit boots and some days we are fragile as gossamer.
Finally, remember that you don’t always get to wear the Manager’s hat. Tomorrow it could be YOU in a group or on the other side of the interview desk, being “managed” by someone else.