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Friday 22 December 2023

Making difficult conversations easier

By Andy Cribbin

Leadership coach and former senior detective Andy Cribbin gives his tips for managers on breaking bad news and handling difficult conversations with staff and the public.

Heated conversation between man and woman in an office

From my time as a young constable right through to leading homicide investigations as a detective superintendent, speaking to the families of victims never got any easier. When you’re communicating the worst possible news, you can’t make it any better but you can make it much worse. The techniques I developed to help me prepare – and get it right first time – can readily be applied to the challenging conversations NHS leaders and managers sometimes need to have with staff and the public. Here are my top ten tips.

1. Be empathetic

Talk to people with genuine compassion and sincerity. If you show you care about the recipient of the news, even though it isn’t what they want to hear, they’ll recognise you’re being supportive. But I would never say, “I know how you feel” – the chances are you don’t, and it’s unlikely to be helpful even if you do.

2. Be honest

Never tell lies, even if you’re trying to soften the blow and think you’re doing it with good intentions. The truth may hurt, but people have the right to expect that what you say is true. You’ll never regain their trust once the lie is uncovered. If you’re not sure of the answer to a question, don’t guess — just say you’ll try to find out.

3. Be clear

Always be clear and unambiguous about what you’re telling people. You can’t make the news any better and if you try to soften it, they may struggle to understand the message. Speak in plain English and plan what you’re going to say beforehand.

4. Be prepared

Once you’ve passed on the message, it’s likely there’ll be several obvious questions. Plan for this by asking yourself what you would want to know. For example, if you’re telling someone there’s been a misconduct allegation against them, make sure you know the procedure. What happens next? Where can they get support?

5. Get the timing right

Don’t put off a difficult conversation just because it’s hard to do. But does bad news at work need to be delivered on a Friday afternoon, leaving the recipient at home all weekend away from assistance at work? Can it wait until Monday when you’ve got all week to provide support and monitor their wellbeing?

6. Choose the right messenger

Are you the right person to break the news? As a senior leader, you may need one of your team to deliver it, as your involvement could make it seem worse than it is. But if an unwelcome message is the result of a decision you’ve made, you should take responsibility for delivering it rather than delegating it.

7. Get the location right

Consider where the conversation is going to take place. A private office or neutral venue can pay dividends. I used to do one-to-ones with staff while walking outside, away from prying eyes — walking side-by-side was less confrontational than talking face to face. I certainly found it easier, and staff found it a more relaxing setting – although clearly it does depend on the weather!

8. Make time

Ensure that you’ve got time in your diary to deliver the message and deal with the outcome. There’s nothing worse than rushing straight out the door after giving people bad news. Making time available shows that you’re sensitive to their needs and committed to giving support.

9. Don’t be judgemental

When talking to people facing misconduct or grievance allegations, it’s not your role to berate them or take sides. The process itself will have a punitive outcome, if proven, so even if you’re frustrated and disappointed with the alleged transgression, don’t let it show and treat them with dignity and respect.

10. Give support

If you’re giving someone bad news, make sure you have suitable welfare support available. Independent welfare services and access to an agreed person whom they trust will go a long way, but make sure support is flexible enough to cope with their individual needs and risks. Finally, be kind to yourself and take time to decompress afterwards, as it’s likely to have been a challenging time for you too.

  • Andy Cribbin retired in 2021 as a detective superintendent after 30 years with Lancashire Police. He now provides leadership training and coaching for a range of private and public sector organisations.

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