Bring Your Big Girl Panties, and other ways to prepare for critical conversations

I needed to call a meeting with three teammates to address a situation that was quickly going in a direction I wasn’t happy about.

The meeting was to redirect the team on an enormous project that had required lots of planning and hard work. My decision was going to send a lot of people back to the drawing board, so I knew the conversation wasn’t going to be an easy one.

I was concerned that my teammates might respond defensively and be upset with all the “wasted” work and time. I anticipated they might be frustrated or even de-motivated because the changes meant missing deadlines.

So to give my teammates a chance to mentally prepare for the meeting, I told them to “make sure you bring your big girl panties.” If that catch phrase isn’t part of your leadership lexicon, it means, “Come prepared not to be a whiner because we are going to have a tough conversation.”

When the meeting time came, each teammate surprised me by arriving with own her pair of big girl panties! It turns out one teammate had bought some big girl panties the night before and even “monogrammed” each teammate’s initials on her very own pair! She even brought a pair for me!

Well, you can imagine that lightened the mood a bit. We laughed and laughed and had a very productive meeting. We even memorialized that defining moment in decision making (and critical conversations) by posing for a photo with our new underwear!

Setting the tone before the conversation

The Big Girl Panties story illustrates my desire to avoid dropping a bomb when it comes to having a critical conversation. There are few things worse than going to a meeting with no idea that it’s going to be difficult, which is why when preparing for a critical conversation, I’ve found that it’s best to always give some type of hint as to the tone of the meeting. You don’t even have to share the specific topic; just set the tone.

If telling teammates to “bring their big girl panties” isn’t your style, there are other ways to communicate the meeting’s tone and avoid dropping the bomb.

  • “Take a deep breath and come mentally prepared. There are a few performance items I need to discuss with you.”
  • “There’s no need to prepare or bring anything to the meeting but an open attitude. We need to discuss a few things, and I’d like you to be in listening mode.”
  • “Hey, you’ve heard of the saying ‘critical conversations?’ Well, we need to have one.”

Why is setting the tone so important? It gives your teammates time to emotionally prepare for the meeting. It also saves you time in the actual meeting because the person or persons will have had the time to adjust to the shock of hearing disappointing news before the meeting itself. They’re also likely to come to the meeting with more of an open mind (or in my case, a pair of big girl panties) since they’ve already been alerted to the tone.

Make sure to immediately schedule a meeting the next day after setting the tone. Don’t give the hint on Friday then set a meeting for Monday. The purpose of setting the meeting’s tone isn’t to be cruel; it’s to be fair and make the critical conversation more productive.

Need more points on critical conversations? Check back Thursday for suggestions of what to do and say during and after those critical conversations.

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