Listen first and do not be defensive. Listen to the tone of what is being said as much as the words are used.
Acknowledge the person’s distress. Try and put yourself in their shoes and approach the issue from their perspective.
Act fast and tell them you are going to do x by y. Manage their expectations and follow through. Get that email out to them to document what will be happening. They want to be heard and they want action, Give it to them – ASAP. If they have posted the complaint to you – post it back – recorded delivery.
Document and keep for as long as you need too. Complaints can run on for months and tribunals can last years. Keep as much detail on file as you can for timelines and adherence to procedures.
Check your body language – keep it open, keep your facial expression neutral – we appreciate this can be difficult. Remember, this is invariably not about you but a whole host of other things going on in that person’s life you may never know about. An angry person is a hurting person.
Be acutely aware of legitimate limitations imposed by low socioeconomic status transport, childcare. Avoid being judgemental and imposing your own class or cultural norms on another family.
Treat your complainer with respect. How do they like to be addressed, where you hold the discussion?
Let the person know that you are working to develop a partnership to move forward.
The problem is the problem. Never shovel the blame to another member of staff, computer systems, or whatever – just plain irritating and pretty bad form.
Stick to evidence not emotions.
Good luck, good patience and remember – it is not about you!!
Chairing a conference can be an onerous task, as anyone who has been asked to step up to the podium can testify. Get it wrong and you can be the most unpopular person in the room. Get it right and the most you can expect is a casual ‘well done’.
Like everything in life, getting it right takes preparation, dedication, practice and, in this case, a cool head on your shoulders. Think of it a bit like hosting a really good party. Your guests should leave with a warm glow – indicating they’ve had a good time, learnt much and met many interesting people. Job done.
Chairing a conference is not that much different, although you usually can’t ply them with alcohol. You are setting the stage to make sure everyone else has that essential feelgood factor when they check out.
Even chairing one session is not something you simply turn up and ‘do’. Like everything that looks simple, this is only because of the amount of preparation that has gone in to it.
Know your audience
As soon as you have received the conference programme, start researching the speakers and audience. You need to get a visual image of who is going to be in the room, how many will be attending each session, and which industries they are from. What are their nationalities and will you be working with an interpreter?
Know your subject generally – know your location specifically
Start your research on key facts about the subject area. You don’t need to challenge the experts, but at least be able to contextualise. If you are working in, say, Canada, have a few key facts about Canadian demographics, work trends and latest news. This will show you are localising your delivery as opposed to simply just turning up and delivering standard stuff.
Hone in on housekeeping
You must arrive early to check out the room, where and who is operating the tech and the location of all the essential facilities and other housekeeping topics. For example, are they expecting a fire drill?
Forget you – it is all about them
The main thing to remember at all times is that this is not about you. This is not the time for you to look clever, outshine the speakers and crack the wittiest jokes ever – although a little levity never goes amiss. You are there to make everyone else look good.
Go the extra mile to create added interest
There is nothing worse for a delegate than arriving at a conference, opening up the programme and then listening to the chair reading out what is printed in front of them. Introduce your speaker with standard name and title by all means, but how about going that extra mile and finding out something interesting to say about him or her beforehand? The best chairs will pick off the speakers at the start of the day and do a little mini interview with them to grab an essential anecdote from them, or garner some flattering insights from their colleagues to lighten up and add interest to the intro.
Lay out the mechanics of the day
In your introduction, let the audience know the general themes for the conference topics, how long sessions will run for, when the breaks will be, where the facilities are and how questions will be taken. This reassures your audience about practicalities and conveys your professionalism as their chair and host.
Create an inviting atmosphere
Try to be as relaxed as possibly and welcome them all with that all-important smile. People are often quite on edge when they arrive at a conference. They may have had a stressful journey, still be brooding about unanswered emails waiting for them, or just stepped out of the cold wind. Your smile and your warmth are what people need on arrival to settle them in before they concentrate on the speakers.
Talk to time – and ensure everyone else does
Timing at these events is crucial. Nothing is more frustrating than a panel discussion that runs over into lunch. Good chairs are great timers. This takes skill and diplomacy and sometime downright autocracy. Many of us have witnessed the desperation on the face of the audience when the speaker has been gently nudged by the chair only to continue the thread they were on with a few self-aggrandising anecdotes. Not sure who everyone hates the most at that moment – the speaker for losing sight of his or her audience or the chair for losing a grip on the job of chairing.
And what if they overrun?
This is when you go into head teacher mode. Tell the speakers very precisely how you will deal with overrunning. What signals will you be giving? Will you put up boards at the back of the room indicating the countdown? Will you ring a bell? If all else fails, the chair will simply have to interject when time is up with a blunt, “I am sorry our time is up – we have 30 seconds to sum up.”
What’s in a name? – everything
Check how the speaker would like to be introduced and make sure their name is pronounced correctly. Nobody like his or her name mispronounced, so make sure you write it down phonetically to get it right.
Preparing for questions
The chair’s job is to really understand and study the timings of the day. If you have a 20-minute presentation, how long have you got for questions? If you get stuck here and no one asks a question, make sure you have one or two jotted down to ask the speaker yourself. Why not ask the speaker what question he or she would like to be asked, and include that in your repertoire of questions? That way the speaker can get an extra nugget of information over to the audience they may not have included in their presentation.
Be a conference DJ – the manager of links
When introducing your next speaker, make sure you make a link with the previous speaker: “Thank you Doctor so and so for that excellent talk on biodiversity, and now Hannah Hill will continue this theme with her talk on her research in this area. She will take questions at the end.”
On the sidelines
When your speakers are delivering their presentations, the chair should sit to the side away from the main focus of the audience and, if necessary, take notes. When the questions are being asked, the chair must remember to look to the audience member and acknowledge their question or even ask for it to be repeated and swiftly paraphrase it for clarity.
And finally…. At the end, rather like a clever magazine article, wrap it all up with a concise summary of what you have all heard that day, restate the main message and draw overall conclusions from the whole conference. Thanks are always in order – check with the organisers if sponsors are involved, mention the support staff from the AV team, the conference team, the caterers – and then send them on their way. With a smile.
In summary: top tips
Know your audience – where are they from, what are their roles, what do they hope to get out of the day?
Get to know your team from the people on the delegate desk to the IT team – you need to know who is there to help if and when you need it
Research your conference programme and individual speakers – prepare an overarching theme and individual biogs
Put your ego on the back-boiler – you are the host not the star turn
Greet with a smile at all times – your job is to inform, reassure and guide
The best chairs are the ones that can keep calm and carry on – work to worst-case scenario, have your bases covered off and be solution-focused
Work out your timings for questions – if you have a ten-minute slot how many questions can you handle?
Know who to thank, from the sponsors to the catering staff
Prepare mentally – a positive mindset and a decent night’s sleep beforehand both help.
I have just been listening to an item on Radio Five live on my way to see a client in West London. When delivering effective communication skills I am often asked about difficult conversations and how to manage them. Therefore when I heard the proposed subject – I tuned in hard.
“So just how do you deliver bad news? “ asked the interviewer to a north country based GP. And then followed the best piece of reasoned common sense from a seasoned expert I have heard for a long time. The good doctor herself explained her background: she had worked in numerous GP surgeries and local accident and emergency centres. She then proceeded the share the following with the listeners – the go to phrase that she always used in dire circumstances:
“ There is only one way to tell you this….”
To the point or what?
Her reasoning was that there is no point taking the potential recipient of horrendous news round the houses with detail they can’t take in and allowing them to build up false hope that can’t be delivered. This is precisely when a maelstrom of emotions will kick in at a time of extreme stress that potentially will take years to overcome. The doctor is in a position of power and she does not abuse it. She tells it how it is.
Of course not all news is off the Richter scale of dramatic like these examples but in day-to-day life we have to tell others things we don’t want to say.
The CBI estimates that workplace conflict costs UK business £33 billion per year, taking up 20% of leadership time and potentially losing up to 370 million working days.
It is possible and potentially kinder to take the assertive route to what may seem the unpalatable or unwanted news. This is not the time to beat around the bush. So often the person who is delivering the bad news that for example redundancies will take place, an order has been lost, the project is running is more worried about having to deliver the message than who is on the receiving end of it. As with any form of communication your emotions go on the back boiler and the only person or people that matter are the ones listening to what you have to say. Get it right and you win trust and respect as a leader and communicator, get it wrong and it could prove costly emotional, productively and financially.
The Doctor in the radio interview told the listeners something that has really resonated with me and people I have talked to since. The two things people can’t handle in life are power and uncertainty. When you are in the workplace with any position of authority don’t abuse it and then add uncertainly into the mix. Moving the goal posts, being unpredictable is not an appealing trait in a work colleague. A sure recipe for disgruntled and future job-hunting employees.
I remember working for a publishing house then based in central London and being told by the managing director that we would definitely not be moving. Oh good we all thought – carry on as usual. Phew.
The next month he called us all in to tell us we would be relocating to deepest Middlesex. “Where’s that?”, thought many of us and “where is the exit?”, thought the rest.
Disbelief, anger and distrust resulted in a massive loss of staff and institutional knowledge to other companies and competitors and resentment from those left behind. All at a financial and reputational cost to the organisation.
So what needs to be done to avoid this?
It is not all simply about telling them how it is. Like all forms of communication there are other aspects to this you can learn.
In the meantime, here are a few pointers to help you with delivering bad news:
With whatever little time you have preparation is still all. Rehearse it is just in your heard. Get your mind into gear. Keep your own motions in check.
Plan the conversation before hand. Think of the words you will use and the impact they will have on the receiver. Role-play it if necessary with a colleague. Check the word being used and err on the side of fact and avoid being overly emotional.
Act swiftly – I recently witnessed a senior leader having to tell colleagues that the chief executive had died. The news was delivered literally hours after the news came through to ensure before body language of the senior team didn’t give gave the game away through furtive glances, built up fear and panic. There was initial panic but that was soon superseded by comfort and solutions. A dire situation that was not exerbated by needless delay and uncertainty.
Acknowledge the person’s emotions appropriately. Be attentive and supportive, but don’t say “I know how you feel,” because you don’t. How about acknowledgement in the form of, “This is a terrible shock to you.”
Listen to what they have to say and paraphrase what you hear back to them. This shows you are really engaging and listening and connecting. It gives them a chance to hear back what they have said correct you if you are wrong or even correct themselves and retune their thoughts and opinions.
So you have just dropped a big one on the listener, which may well leave them reeling and emotional. If they get emotional or even angry with you is not your job to mirror that behavior. Keep your voice low and acknowledge with assertive statements such as,“I am can hear that you are angry.” Another tip I learnt when dealing with anger – if you are sitting down stay seated even if the recipient comes towards you. Standing up and facing them down will escalate the tension. If you do want to remove yourself tell the person what you are doing, thank them for listening and set an alternative time to continue the conversation.
Of course all this improves with practice – and learning from what you got right and what you could improve on. Becoming an effective communicator comes through self-awareness, awareness of others around you and the right body language and choice of reactions and language. Trying all these techniques out in a safe and controlled environment can be one major step forward in redefining yourself as the better you.
Is assertiveness training the way towards a more harmonious workplace? We can’t avoid difficult conversations – how you handle them is what matters.
Difficult conversations are part of being assertive – we all have to engage in them. It is almost part of growing up. Everyday we can find an opportunity to avoid a difficult conversation, or get into one. Just having to say no to a personal request, change an appointment or change a date for something re-arranged could get pretty tricky if managed badly.
The workplace takes the whole ball game to another level. This is where mistakes can get measured and monetized – this is where getting your point across with the right tone, appropriate manner and meaning really starts to count.
If you handle that client incorrectly, and they walk, it could spell financial disaster and reputations could be seriously damaged.
We’re not just talking about external relationships here – internal conversations matter too. Telling your colleague you are unhappy with their idea is one thing that can test your nerve, giving your boss notice is another.
Whether we like it or not, we need to manage up to our bosses, down to our suppliers and across with our colleagues.
In recent years, one way or another, I have had my fair share of difficult conversations. Some I have handled better than others. Some have affected me – others changed me.
This is where assertiveness training comes in to play: the idea of putting yourself in the driving position – the idea of changing yourself.
‘I wanted to change the world. But I found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.” Aldous Huxley
So what are the main tenants of assertiveness?
Assertive is about being confident and direct when communicating. You are open to other people’s views even though they may differ to yours.
You do not blame others when things go wrong.
You give and take compliments and criticism.
And here is the nub. Assertiveness is not aggression, which is a pure determination to get your own way, or the opposite of being passive, which is putting your own needs to one side in favour of others.
It is not the ever-present passive aggressive which is the indirect approach of sly and manipulative behaviour – the avoidance approach.
To simplify: assertiveness is the use of the ‘I’ word over the ‘you’ approach.
It is about positively framing the argument from your own perspective rather than using the word ‘you’ in an accusatory fashion.
So where does assertiveness as a concept originate from?
I first came across assertiveness training 20 years ago when a friend of mine passed on a training manual to me after she had completed a course. This friend has to be one of the best negotiators I have worked with, firm and always fair and a consummate professional in getting information across.
‘Have a close look at this Wendy,’ she said. ‘You will thank me for it.’
The first research in assertiveness can be traced back to the 1940s and work with understanding depressed clients.
Assertiveness and the idea that we should be able to advocate for ourselves without harming the rights of others, and controlling aggressive impulses, can be traced back to the 1960s and the advent of Humanist Psychology.
Civil rights movement psychologists in 70s saw assertiveness as a way of protecting human rights, and by the new millennium this interest in assertiveness had really gathered pace.
By now the application of assertiveness had shifted into schools, higher education and HR departments.
As a trainer and coach with Coralstone, my research and experience has provided me with ample opportunity to sharpen my skills professionally in this area.
I have mediated away days for dysfunctional staff groups, handled staff grievances and coached professionals in and out of jobs and different career paths.
I was brought up and educated in the times when young people, and especially girls, were not encouraged to challenge the status quo, let alone speak of personal success. The first person singular was practically forbidden.
What I’ve learnt is that the ‘I’ word is a powerful, assertive tool, leading us away from the finger-jabbing tone of the ‘you’ word. The first person singular takes a powerful of its own and puts you right where you belong – in charge of yourself.
Here follows 10 examples of powerful statements
‘I’ statements mean you take ownership- you statements may lead to an attack and blame
I am sorry you feel like that
I wish you had not said that
I don’t understand – can you clarify?
I can see how you might think that
I prefer not to answer that
Where do we differ?
No I am sorry I can’t
I would like to help however I have a
Can I get back to you later?
Writer coach and soft skills trainer, Wendy Smith runs training courses in Effective Communications. Assertiveness and Presentation skills.
The room is big, the room is full of people and the canapés are being handed round. There are you – alone with glass in hand and not a person you know in sight. Your heart sinks south.
Well, at least the waiting staff smile at you.
“Go network,” chirped the convivial host with a smile that would shame the Cheshire cat – a suggestion adding to a sinking feeling into a bottomless pit of horror.
We have all been there. The one when you just want to curl up into the foetal position and hide. But you can’t. Networking has been with us since we started communicating. People work with people they know, like and – key word here – trust. They network for business leads, to get a job, change careers or find new staff.
Meeting and greeting our fellow colleagues does not need to be like this – akin to the stuff of nightmares. Human interaction – notwithstanding the advance of day-to-day screen life – is the bedrock of relationships. Yes, we form impressions of others by the way they write an email or sound on the phone. But this only a snapshot or a hint – often misleading as to what we really think of them.
How many times have you gone on to meet someone only to find out that you have done a 360-degree turnaround on your initial view. And that can so often be from a negative to a positive view.
When professionals want to get business, they get out and network. We choose to work with people we like and we won’t know that until we have – as they say – seen the whites of their eyes. Chemistry still rules supreme and you can’t get a handle on that through the screen on your laptop or tablet.
So what can we do to take the sting out of this? How can we muster up the confidence to crawl out from underneath a stone? Like all things in life the answer is not rocket science but a well used mantra from the scouting movement – be prepared.
Armed with some pertinent preparation, planning and mental realignment, this can turn out to be your best business night yet. Here follows some useful pointers:
The guest list
Check off the guest list beforehand and work out who you really want to meet. Check their details via LinkedIn to see what you have to offer them, whether there is any common ground in terms of networks, geography or shared educational institutions.
Several years ago I was fortunate enough to attend training from the powerful and impressive Judi James, author of The Body Language Bible amongst many other titles. Her words have always stayed with me. Her advice was to have a goal of the number of business cards that you will collect in any one evening and do not leave until you have got them. Nothing like a goal to galvanise us into action! However, goals apart, there is still that essential follow up. Business cards are no use clogging up the wallet. Try and revisit them the next day and follow up with an email or a LinkedIn connection to take the story forward.
Find a working partner
If you are on your own, you probably won’t be only the one. Scan the room quickly and approach the other person you see as a solo act. Introduce yourself to them – you have no idea how relieved they will be. One thing I wish I had discovered much earlier in life is that everyone is just getting through but some people do it with more aplomb than others.
The importance of the name
All of us have done it – especially when a little nervous. We are told the person’s name and then we blank. The all-important recall button fails us. ‘What was your name again’ can sound lame, rude and dismissive. There is a reason why sales people repeat your name – to make you feel good and so they don’t forget. Another way round this one is to discreetly ask your working partner to remind you – preferably out of earshot too.
The initial approach
Another Judi James tips – walk tall, walk proud and walk regally. Stretch your hand out and offer a handshake. This needs testing on colleagues. Go for firm rather than crushing, with eye contact and conviction. A diffident physical approach will produce a diffident response.
Listen don’t broadcast
Ask the person you have introduced yourself to a series of open questions and wait until they have answered before responding. So many times we only wait to speak or jump in to take the conversation back to us – this is broadcasting. Listen to what the person is saying and echo some of the words they are using. Summarise what you think they have said to check you have really heard it. This demonstrates attention and empathy.
When asked what you do, have that elevator pitch polished and to the point and relevant to where you happen to be. So often we get carried away about all the things we do – professional work, freelance work, voluntary work – we can confuse before we inform. Indeed this is another time where preparation counts – sort out the relevant elevator pitch before the evening starts.
Give, don’t just take
Finally, networking is not just about taking the oxygen of attention or a great contact for your organisation. It is a chance for you to give back. Offer to send over that piece of information, a connection that can help solve a business problem, a brilliant supplier that can really help.
Remember that results don’t happen overnight. Have patience, be generous and all will be revealed. Your business group will grow, opportunities will crop up and your confidence will head north rather than sink south.
Coralstone Training provides coaching, either one-to-one or in groups, on soft business skills including networking and pitching.