3 ways HR can use a doctor’s approach to navigate difficult conversations

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As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, HR leaders are finding that they are having difficult conversations with employees on a more frequent basis. These conversations are never easy or natural, especially when they can’t be in person, but there are strategies employers can take to deliver difficult news in a way that fosters compassion and clear communication.

“We're finding our HR professionals are having to deliver news that they’ve never had to before. How you have those difficult conversations with employees can make the difference in someone being a good manager,” says Dr. Anthony Orsini, a practicing neonatologist who also helps business and HR leaders navigate difficult conversations in the workplace.

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As a physician, Dr. Orsini is familiar with having difficult conversations with patients. After a life-changing experience witnessing another doctor deliver news in a way that made the situation worse, Orsini says he knew there was a way to make the process better, and adapt it to a corporate environment.

“I spent the next 10 years researching the best ways to communicate during difficult conversations,” Orsini says. “I started the breaking bad news program, where I've been training people all over the country on how to have difficult conversations, how to build relationships, and how to use verbal and nonverbal communication techniques to deliver compassion, and to make things go easily to resolve conflicts.”

Over the years Orsini’s program evolved from training only within the healthcare industry to other businesses and organizations with an emphasis on good employee communications. In an one on one interview, Dr. Orsini shared some strategies for HR professionals to implement when navigating difficult conversations with employees.

Dig deeper into the underlying problems
How do you have a conversation with an employee who is not really performing where you’d like them to? You can have that employee leave that office angry at their manager asking “Why is he or she picking on me?” But if you do it the right way, you can have that employee leave saying “I'm really sorry I disappointed my boss, and I want to show him or her that I can do better.”

How we communicate that performance record can make a big difference, but what managers often do incorrectly is put the blame on the employee.They keep it very impersonal: “You're not meeting your numbers, you're falling behind. If this keeps happening we're going to have to make some changes around here.” Instead, say, “ I see your performance was falling off a little bit. Is there anything going on in your life that maybe we could help you with? Are there any resources that I can help you with, because I want you to succeed here.”

You want your employee to understand that you want them to achieve greatness.
Embrace new ways of learning how to communicate
Once employers understand how people communicate, we do specific exercises [to enhance that education]. We’ve been doing this remotely now with professional actors through live video, but typically we put your employees through different scenarios and we record and show them. We say “This is how you did this,” or “You probably could have phrased that a little bit differently. How about phrasing it this way?” The exciting thing about it is that you see them light up once it clicks. The people we teach say things like “Wow, that’s so cool, I get it now.” Once they have it they have it forever.
Focus on nonverbal communication
We assume that everyone's a good communicator when actually most people [aren’t]. Make sure that each important person who's having any difficult conversations at any management level understands how the human brain works. How we communicate as human beings is that verbal language is probably less important than nonverbal language. It’s not the words we use, but the mannerisms we have. We have to rewire the way [managers] think, and rewire the way they perceive communication. Communication is not about the words, it's about your nonverbal language, your tone and your cadence.