One of the most powerful and skills a leader can have is the ability to have difficult conversations, sometimes really difficult conversations – with empathy, humanity, and compassion. Human being to human being.
That’s what really stood out in my conversation with Certified Forensic Interviewer Angela Nino. Her path from criminal justice major to 911 operator to loss prevention specialist to expert in workplace investigations is fascinating. Within just minutes of speaking with her, you automatically want to become a better communicator.
She makes you think differently. Makes you consider leadership with a real “walk a mile in someone’s shoes” type lens. I don’t know about you, but the thought of interviewing someone for theft, misappropriation, misconduct, or a criminal act conjures up good cop/bad cop interrogation room television or movie scenes. Not necessarily a thoughtful, graceful, emotion-based approach to ensuring that the person on the other side of the table feels seen, heard, and understood. The way Angela breaks it down, however, it completely makes sense. People act and react based on emotions. If they sense that “authentic connection” and feel seen, listened to, and actually heard – it stands to reason they’ll be more likely to open up and tell their story, even if it means being fired or arrested. They want to be heard. Frankly, don’t we all?
I loved how she pointed out that by the time we get to that point, when someone is headed out the door, sometimes in handcuffs, it’s almost too late for empathy. That connection should start day one on the job or in the interview process and every day after. Leaders have the ability to change the culture of employee behavior from the outset. Does that mean things like theft or misconduct won’t happen? Of course not. But when leaders look at a person first as a person – and create trust and promote empathy in the workplace, there’s a lot better stage for loyalty and committed behavior.
For some leaders, this might be a lot to take in. They’ve been in “boss mode” for a long time and the idea of being present in the moment and coming from a place of compassion just doesn’t feel like it’s in the cards. I think what Angela shares goes a long way to make an argument for change in that thinking. When you can take difficult situations and tough conversations and connect with an emotion that someone else is feeling – that’s powerful.
For example, letting someone go is not easy for most people. Likewise, being told, “You’re fired,” is difficult, frustrating, and painful. You look bad as a leader if you handle it poorly. Angela tells a story of a team member who was let go, and, against her wishes, was walked out in cuffs by a police officer through the middle of the store. That wasn’t OK with her and it became a defining moment. She called the entire team together and explained that was not how things were done and shifted the narrative about what had just transpired, and in turn, shifted the culture for the organization. “Culture is built in everyday moments and tested in the difficult ones,” she said. That’s game changing.
Imagine yourself in both seats. As a leader and as an employee who’s about to be fired. It’s not small thing in our world to be mindful that the way you handle someone on the last day of work – could be the difference between whether they come back in a violent way. We have to be sensitive to that.
So, how can you manage that conversation? Instead of blame and shame, can you say something along the lines of, “Let’s walk through the process of what happens next.” Then talk about it. How you get where they are, and you want to help them get through this transition with as much ease as possible. That’s in everyone’s best interest, right? Talk about what happens when someone calls for a reference. Angela talks about how she’s cleared halls so that a person could leave without all eyes on them. About walking them through what the future might look like. About not just paying lip-service with sympathetic words, but actually connecting the dots and feeling for where another person is coming from so that as a leader you are both giving and receiving respect. How you handle these situations says as much or more about your leadership ability than it does the team member.
And let’s talk for a moment about how tough conversations are communicated. Especially, but not exclusively, amongst our emerging leaders. I once talked to a manager who fired someone via text. Buddy, that misses the mark in a million different ways. Can you imagine if that or something like it happened to you? What you would feel? How you would react? Leaders have got to put themselves in another person’s shoes. 7% of communication is the actual words spoken – the rest is tone and body language. To become exceptional leaders, you’ve got to be willing to demonstrate that you can communicate – face-to-face. An email or text isn’t going to cut it. Your company culture and your credibility are at stake.
It starts at the top. If mid managers are not communicating effectively, that usually means that the leader is not communicating effectively. And that means it’s time for some evolution in your organization. Some serious deep dives into skill sets and mindsets that allow empathy to become front and center.
Angela and her team’s strategy to bridge high-level communication skill building with improv is just genius. What a powerful way to practice in a low stake’s environment. When you’re laughing you’re learning. When you’re learning, you’re growing. Little things like looking someone in the eye, being present in a conversation, letting someone finish what they are saying and then responding to it, rather than reciting the line you’ve been practicing in your head – all turn into big things in terms of the ability to lead with dignity. With humanity and compassion.
What steps can you make to improve your leadership team’s communication skills starting now? Let’s have a conversation!