Simple techniques that will take the anxiety out of your next tricky client conversation
It would be nice if we only ever had to bring good news. But part of being an effective adviser is knowing how to tell clients exactly what they don't want to hear.
If you're procrastinating over your next difficult conversation, here's our seven step guide to get the best possible outcome.
The first step in conducting a difficult conversation is not to have it at all... at least not until you've had the chance to step back and reflect. That's because most people's first reaction to any kind of uncomfortable situation is emotional. And, as psychologist Rachel Clements from the Centre for Corporate Health says, the worst thing anyone can do is to start our conversation while we're not in control of our emotions.
"To get results, and if time permits, the deliverer needs to pause and leave it a day - even a couple of days - until they're emotionally ok to do it," she says.
Once you're thinking straight, it's time to prepare. That means working out exactly what the purpose of the meeting is. In other words, what do you want to have resolved when you get to the end of it?
Merilyn Speiser, Principal of Catalina Consultants, says preparing with the end in mind will help you anchor your meeting no matter how far off course it may stray.
"If you're telling someone something they really don't want to hear, there's no way you can predict exactly how they will behave," she says. "That's why often it's a good idea to prepare by drawing a flowchart, which can help you think about the variables and arrange your thoughts based on a number of different scenarios."
While you're in this preparation phase, you should also notify the person you'll be speaking to about what you want to cover. For instance, if an investment fails or dividends suddenly drop, let them know this in advance so that they won't be caught by surprise.
Because so much of a meeting is unpredictable, it's vital to control the things that you can control. So, once you know what you want to say, it's time to practice. "Make sure you do some preparation around what you're going to say and how you're going to say it," Clements says.
She suggests a good technique is to rehearse and record the most important parts of what you're going to say so you can see how you come across. "Your tone, body language and voice quality are all vital and will go some way to determining how the meeting goes."
You know what you want to say and how you want to say it. Now add the finishing touches to give your meeting the best chance of running according to plan.
For instance, where will you hold the meeting? In your office? In the boardroom? At a neutral venue such as a cafe? And will you face each other across the table in an adversarial fashion or side-by-side in a more collegiate manner?
Speiser says that you take some time before the meeting to clear your head and rehearse one last time. "You need to be in the right state of mind, not running from meeting. I always recommend blocking out the 30 minutes beforehand to do a final piece of preparation."
The meeting is finally here: now it's your job to control how it goes. And Clements believes that taking charge begins right from the very first sentence.
"We coach people to say something like: 'Thank you for finding the time to get together. We're here to discuss your investment's poor performance. The content might be difficult for you to hear and it's also quite difficult for me to say.'"
"This immediately lets them know that it's going to be a difficult conversation."
Clements says that by going straight into the bad news – and then pausing for a moment to let it sink in – you'll give the other person some much needed psychological adjustment time.
She also says that for the next little while it's unlikely that they'll be listening to what you have to say. So don't go straight into the rationale for why something has happened. Instead, if the person reacts emotionally, give them time to vent, talk or express their disagreement before taking the meeting back to where it needs to be.
"If you move too early emotions will start surfacing again," Clements cautions. "So wait until they've finished talking."