Framing Negative Conversations Positively

Images courtesy of "loswhit" on Photo illustration by Rachel Moorman.

Difficult conversations with coworkers, bosses or subordinates in the workplace can be a huge challenge if you’re not prepared. Our human instincts don’t always promote self-control and careful wording. But in order to get real results from your challenging discussions, you must take note of some important communication skills that allow you to use the principles of PR to handle the task.

Let’s go through these six PR principles defined by APR Kami Watson Huyse, a 17-year-veteran of PR and co-founder of PR firm Zoetica, and apply them to challenging workplace conversations.

1. Tell the truth

If you have to tell someone who’s working for you that what they’ve produced is not up to your standards, don’t sugarcoat it or alter your message. The situation will never improve if you just tell them that you want to take the project a different direction. While that may be true to some extent, if it’s not the reason they’re work isn’t acceptable, don’t tell them that. You don’t have come down on them so hard that they’re terrified to turn anything into you again.

You might be tempted to say: “This is shotty work. We can’t use it because you didn’t do a good enough job even though I told you exactly what I wanted.”

But you should really be saying: “Unfortunately, I don’t think the quality of this is quite up to the standards we discussed previously. Why don’t you go back and rework it until it meets those expectations, and if you have questions about what those are, let’s go over it again.”

2. Prove it with action

When it comes to taking on challenges given by your supervisor, you have to be a man or woman of your word. If your boss asks you to develop a social media plan and you tell him you’ll be able to get it done by Friday, be sure that you get it done by Friday. If you’re unsure of what your time line will be, you have to let them know, rather than make a claim that you can’t stick by. Would you ever send out a press release about a program that should be rolled out by a certain date, but you’re not actually sure that it will happen? Probably not. In the same way, you shouldn’t tell your boss you can finish something by a certain time if you don’t know that you can.

You might be tempted to say: “I can definitely finish this by Friday. I’ll get to you before 5 pm.”

But you should really be saying: “I’d love to get this done by Friday, but I can see that there may be some unforeseen challenges that arise in the process. My goal is to get as much accomplished as I can by Friday and incorporate the resolution of any challenges as soon as information becomes available.”

3. Listen to the customer

In this case, whoever you may be having a conversation with is your customer. When it comes to listening and paying attention to needs, you should always treat others like a customer in your interactions. It will help you to remain humble without allowing you to become a complete pushover. You don’t want to react to everyone like you’re there to do anything and everything for them, because that doesn’t help anybody. But you want to be attentive to them and their concerns. It will make your communication more productive, and cause others to appreciate the way you communicate with them.

When proposing a communications plan to a client, it’s easy to talk like an expert (because essentially you are, that’s why they hired you), but you have to frame your relationship as a partnership. You’re not the parent telling a child how to behave. You’re walking alongside your client, using your skill set to benefit their efforts.

You might be tempted to say: “Your company doesn’t know how to communicate effectively. Interactions with your clients have been dismal at best, and there are no efforts to control public perception. You really should have been paying attention to this a long time ago.”

But you should really be saying: “From what we’ve discussed, it sounds like there haven’t been many resources allocated to communications efforts in the past, which is why we want to start by elevating direct communication to the clients you already have. Then we’ll focus in on portraying a better image to enhance public perception of your company.”

4. Manage for tomorrow

Every time you communicate with someone, you’re setting the stage for how they will respond to you in the future. It’s been said that it takes 10 new interactions to change a first impression. I think the same can be applied to general communication with others. If you have 10 positive conversations, and one day just decide that you’re gonna let them have it rather than handling conflict appropriately, their perception of you and how you interact with people will certainly be tainted, so make sure every conversation is framed positively and handled appropriately.

For someone who makes repeated mistakes, but has not exhausted their second chances at the particular task, addressing the problem yet again can be a challenge as you’re likely to be frustrated. But if you speak to them respectfully and honestly, you’re more likely to have positive interactions in the future.

You might be tempted to say: “You did it again. You’ve made this mistake time and time again. If it keeps happening, we’re gonna have a big problem on our hands.”

But you should really be saying: “Be sure that you’re keeping an eye on this and doing it as we discussed. I hate for you to be spending extra time correcting it so often. If you need some more detail on exactly to do this, we can go over it again.”

5. Conduct public relations as if the whole company depends on it

Be sure that every conversation you have is treated like an important conversation. This tells the person you’re interacting with that not just the issue, but the person is important to you and has value in your mind. This will make all your conversations more positive, and the people you communicate with will be more receptive to what you have to say.

You might be tempted to: Consider your next point or develop your argument further rather than listen to what the other person has to say.

But you really should be: Listening to them so that you can later acknowledge their points in your response to reiterate that both opinions have value.

6. Remain calm, patient and good-humored

It probably goes without saying that in the world of PR, you can never lose your cool, especially when it’s your job to make sure your company doesn’t lose their cool in the wake of crisis or negative publicity. It’s important to project yourself in the same way you want people to see your company. Explosive, impatient and easily offended is not a way to act when representing your company or yourself.

If somebody confronts you with a problem, you have to be sure to approach the situation calmly.

You might be tempted to say: “This is absolutely ridiculous. I can’t believe this happened. Who didn’t do their job correctly?”

But you really should be saying: “Let’s get to work taking care of this right away. The sooner we resolve this, the better of we’ll be. We should start by finding out where the problem started go from there.”

The next time you have a difficult conversation, remember these tips. Using public relations for your organization as well as for yourself is a sure-fire way to help manage conflict and interaction of any kind.


3 thoughts on “Framing Negative Conversations Positively

  1. I LOVE your picture for this blog! It cracked me up.
    I think this is an interesting topic- how to handle difficult conversations in the workplace. It is something I think people are unprepared for. Most difficult conversations we have experience with are with parents or peers before we enter into the working-world. And obviously the way you communicate, especially with difficult topics, are done much more casually with friends and family than is appropriate in the office. I think this should be in our graduate envelopes we receive when we cross the stage because it’s something we haven’t had to face yet and need training to do it properly.

  2. Love the pic too! Anyways, honesty is ALWAYS the best policy. That way, you never have to remember what you lied about if you just tell the truth.

    I know I have a hard time correcting someone and usually am too nice about it when I do. It is so hard if you know you may hurt someone’s feelings, but in the end they will be thankful you helped them. Especially if it could have harmed their reputation or the company’s.

    The “Remain patient, calm and good humored” section was my favorite. This topic relates to all of us because we are all pretty much newbies when it comes to having a real job. The first time something goes wrong it will be hard not to freak out considering we have never dealt with that kind of stress. The answer really is simple though. If you just keep your cool and work together, everything will be okay. Freaking out will only add to the chaos!

  3. This post is so helpful to anyone going into the public relations field. All of these are excellent and necessary skills to have when working in the PR industry. Sometimes in the industry today people believe you have to be extremely thick-skinned and harsh in order to be successful, but as you’ve described in this post, that isn’t the case at all. It’s crucial for PR practitioners to have tact and be sensitive the their clients, employees and surrounding environment (for example telling the truth in a way that doesn’t terrify others or sugarcoat the situation).

    I think all of the sections in the post are so relevant to the industry, but the “Listening to the Client” is one that I paid the most attention to. Like the saying, “The customer is always right,” that’s who you will be dealing with the most, so it’s important to know your job and your role as their public relations person. Obviously, you’re ultimate goal is to please your customer/client. In my PR Design class this semester, we had to create a logo for a local church. They wanted the design to be “simple,” but include two colors, a cross, their church tower and people. For anyone with design experience this seems impossible because it’s almost a contradiction. However, it was my job, as well as the role of other designers in the class, to create an original design that included the elements they were looking for without going over the top.

    Overall, the ability to frame negative conversations positively will create good, healthy relationships with business partners, clients and employees so the public relations practitioner can please their customers.

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