Over recent weeks I have been involved in facilitating group coaching sessions to teams of call handlers who regularly have to work with customers having to cope with challenging personal and financial circumstances. In these groups we generally have a huge amount of experience in dealing with these sticky conversations but even so they find that they often struggled keeping the conversations focused whilst maintaining the level of compassion and understanding needed.
Why is this? In a nutshell the answer lies in our emotions. Frustration, anger, disgust, sadness and fear are all emotions that can be brought up during sticky conversations, indeed even merely at the thought of having to have one. The emotional part of our brain works faster and more strongly than the rational, logical part of our brain. It needs to… it’s designed to protect us from danger. There’s no point standing in the middle of the road whilst a car hurtles towards you debating with yourself the probability of it hitting you! But often letting our emotions rule, can cloud our judgement and work against us. When did you ever make your best decision while in the heat of the moment? Being able to recognise when our emotions are triggered and slowdown, allows our ‘rational brain’ to catch up. Decisions can then be made with a clear head.
And the same is true for our customers, colleagues, boss or whoever else we might be facing a sticky conversation with. They too have their own emotional triggers and they too will benefit from decisions made unclouded by these emotions.
Our best route to a win-win situation is to approach each sticky conversation with a clear strategy aimed at helping both parties build trust, feel understood and gain belief that both sides’ interests are important. Having an clear approach to work though ahead of the conversation can help us stay on track, keep the wheels well oiled and provide a smooth rise to our desired destination, with as few bumps along the road as possible. With this in mind (sorry for the pun) I’ve designed the GREASE approach to sticky conversations.
G – Greet with warmth and without judgement. First impressions are made in less than 10 seconds and this short time will set the groundwork for how the rest of the conversation is likely to go. According to Mehrabian (2009), over a half of our first impressions are based on visual cues - are we smiling, do we look approachable and professional, are we a ‘friend or foe’? Vocal cues are also important, not so much what we say (we are after all only talking about a few seconds!) but how we say it – our tone, pitch, rhythm, articulation etc.
R – Build Rapport. Use verbal and non-verbal communication to help develop trust and create a safe space. Using people’s names, encouraging nods, body language all work towards building rapport.
E – Listen to their story with Empathy. ‘Seek first to understand, then be understood’ is the fifth habit in Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. How can we effectively help our customers if we don’t try and put ourselves in their shoes and fully understand their needs. Jumping in too early will not only rupture rapport but can lead us down the wrong path.
A – Ask open questions. As a coach, open questions are our bread and butter for helping clients talk about their situations and raising awareness. But in a challenging conversation using reflections and summarising, in addition to open questions, can avoid the conversation feeling more like an interrogation and help us stay focused on possible solutions.
S – Supply the relevant information. By now rapport should have been built and we understand what is needed from us and for our client. Spending the necessary time ahead of this step can save time (and potentially a lot of ‘agro’) here.
E – End the conversation. Now your job is done ensure a good closure. If possible ask for feedback so that your next sticky conversation can be even better.
Personally, I’ve found that the teams I work with love this structure and find the acronym easy to remember. Some even say they’ll stick little reminders up around their desk! If you have a sticky conversation coming up please feel free to use and I’d love any feedback. And if your team regularly engages in sticky conversations and could benefit from this approach, please do get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.
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