Planning a Difficult Conversation? Learn the Importance of Context Switching

Your role as a manager pretty much boils down to effective communication. You communicate with your team with the goal of achieving a few things, including:

  • High performance.
  • Collaboration.
  • Progression.
  • Engagement.

Every single piece of communication has context that surrounds it. It’s very important to understand this because it makes a difference to how you approach that communication.

Typically, most of the communication you’ll do with a team member will fall into a series of formal and informal one on one meetings, such as:

  • Weekly meetings to talk about workload and day-to-day issues.
  • Monthly meetings to reflect on work completed and talk about progression.
  • Quarterly meetings to look at the bigger picture and work on big goals.

You’ll then also have team meetings where you bring everyone together. These are also likely to happen on a regular basis such as daily standup/scrum meetings to plan daily work or monthly meetings to plan workloads. 

The point is, you’ll get into a regular cadence of meetings with your team and fall into a rhythm for how these meetings are run. They’ll become a habit for you and the team and they’ll be used to the topics, agenda points and actions that they usually drive. The context behind all of these meetings will become clear and understood as time goes on.

You do need to be careful of meeting fatigue, but that’s a topic for another day.

But it also allows for a problem to appear related to meeting context.

The role of meeting context

Your team can become so comfortable and familiar with the context of these meetings, that when you include an agenda point that covers something very important and out of the ordinary, they won’t realise it or take it as seriously as they perhaps should. They then leave the meeting in the way that they normally would, unaware of the seriousness of what was just discussed.

The meeting context that they are expecting is the one that they will focus on. 

This is especially true in one on one meetings. For example, let’s say that during a weekly one on one catch up, you cover two broad things:

  1. Your regular agenda, such as their workload and any blockers they have for the week.
  2. Some underperformance issues that you’ve noticed and need to address.

Covering both of these, under the context of a regular, weekly one on one catch up that is usually pretty straightforward, will mean that #2 will not be heard as clearly as it should be. 

The team member will have come into that meeting expecting the agenda, talking points and actions that they usually get. The context they were expecting will be the one that makes it hard for you to effectively communicate the underperformance issues.

Even if you talk openly about the problem or important topic very clearly, the message won’t be as effectively heard when combining your regular agenda and talking points. 

Essentially, your team member will think “well, we covered our regular stuff and Paddy didn’t seem too upset during that bit, so the problem can’t be that bad”.

Context of a conversation is everything.

How to switch the context and ensure that your message is heard

There are a number of very simple ways that you can switch context so that you break the regular rhythm of your meetings and ensure that the importance of your message is heard loud and clear.

Change location

This is a particularly important one if your regular meeting place is a fairly casual one or even somewhere public such as a coffee shop or communal space of an office. These aren’t appropriate places to deliver important messages anyway, but the context of these locations don’t fit with the importance of what you need to say.

Even if you regularly meet in a private office, you can benefit from changing to a more “serious” meeting room or even doing a meeting outside of the office, as long as the location is very private.

Change the agenda completely

If you have a regular one on one meeting every Monday at 11am, you can still use this meeting slot to have the important conversation. But you should change the agenda completely to find another time to cover the usual agenda. 

For example, I could say something like:

“We were due to go over our regular agenda this morning but I’ve decided to push that back to tomorrow morning instead. This is because we have something more important to focus on and talk about first, which is an issue regarding your performance on the recent project for client A.”

You don’t have to use these exact words, but hopefully this demonstrates how you can switch the agenda completely and use this as a chance to change the context.

Most importantly, you’re not “tagging on” an important conversation to the end (or even at the start) of your regularly scheduled agenda. You’re breaking the context, making it more likely that the team member will sit up and listen, and take your points seriously.

Change your tone and body language

This is a big one, even more so if you typically take a relaxed and informal approach to most one on one meetings. It’s important to convey the seriousness of the message that you’re delivering, so this point isn’t just about context switching, it’s also about matching your tone and approach with the message.

For example, you may want to sit up straight at all times and face the team member directly, whilst maintaining eye contact when delivering your message. You shouldn’t appear relaxed about the message.

Change how you begin the meeting

Whilst I’m not very good at small talk, I usually try to start meetings by asking someone how they are, or how their weekend was, or how their kids are etc. This is a good thing and something that I’d encourage.

However, when I need to deliver a very important message or am about to have a difficult conversation, I’ll do my best to cut to the chase and avoid all small talk – or at least as much as possible!

I’ll try to take control of the conversation and narrative as quickly as possible, which helps me avoid small talk and also prevents the individual from sidetracking the conversation immediately. This sounds harsh, but it’s important when trying to switch meeting context that you have control of the narrative as soon as possible.

So, if you have an upcoming conversation that is likely to be difficult or more difficult than usual, take some time to consider switching the context of that meeting. It will definitely help you deliver the message in the most effective way.

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