Now imagine you’re on the receiving end.
Easy or difficult, if you’re on the giving end you have one clear advantage: You get to prepare. If you’re on the receiving end your ability to prepare is limited, even if the deliverer has scheduled the conversation and stated the subject clearly.
Mostly, it’s as if the other person is doing stand-up while you’re performing involuntary improv. How can you prepare when you aren’t in a position to prepare?
Answer: Start preparing right now. No, you can’t prepare for the specifics. Yes, you can be prepared with broad strategies you’ve spent time mentally rehearsing.
Start with the broadest strategy of all. That’s your so-called “personal brand” — your image and how you project it.
My own personal brand (no secrets here!) is “relaxed and confident.” If I’m caught off-guard, that’s what I retreat to … not as well and reliably as I’d like, but it’s what I shoot for.
Your brand might very well be different: Young and brash, smooth and suave, quietly competent, bold and intimidating … the specifics matter less than making how you want to come across in all situations a conscious decision.
This means more than recognizing the advantages to be gained from those around you perceiving you this way. It also means accepting that the image you project might not always be advantageous, but that’s how you have to present yourself anyway.
Because you don’t get to be situational about this. Sure, you’re allowed moods. But being a completely different person depending on who you’re talking to and about what is more likely to make you come across as a complete phony (or victim of dissociative identity disorder) than anything else.
And in case you think planning at this level is the hallmark of a complete phony, I disagree. There’s no reason the image you project should be a one-to-one reflection of your self-image. But there’s every reason you should do everything you can to make your projected image real — for your self-image to become your projected one, so that you make yourself into who you want to be.
Know who you want to be. That’s how you should behave no matter the situation you’re faced with.
Start with the easiest: Your manager compliments you publicly for a job well done. Hey, it could happen! It happens all the time.
How do you handle public compliments? No, don’t tell me. Ask yourself the best way to handle them. Pay attention to how other people handle them, both those who are awkward and those who are graceful. If you know in advance how you’d like to behave in this situation you’ll be graceful about it.
How about the other extreme. Say your manager sits you down for a corrective action talk when you’ve been thinking your performance has been just fine and dandy.
It’s out of the blue and entirely unexpected. You say … what, and in what tone of voice?
A primal scream is out of the question. So is bursting into tears, as neither one is likely to fit your personal brand.
What’s the right answer? Quick — you have no more than three seconds before your silence will be your response.
The right answer is to buy time. As Relaxed-and-Confident Guy, I might ask, calmly, for some of the specifics that have created my manager’s perception.
Young-and-Brash woman might, with a level of animation that doesn’t cross over into hostility, say something like, “I’m not entirely surprised this has become an issue, but I am surprised they (whoever they are) decided to involve you. Tell me what you heard.”
Beyond this I’ll give you one guideline that will stand you in good stead no matter what difficult conversation you’re on the receiving end of. That’s to choose phrasing that makes you and the other person “we,” in a situation the two of you will have to collaborate to resolve.
It can make the difference between you being perceived as argumentative and defensive and the other person wondering why this conversation needed to happen.
Even better, it will invalidate the other person’s plan, which puts you on a more even footing.
Now, you’re both doing improv.