As leaders there are times we need to have hard conversations with people. When behaviors or results are not what they should be it is our duty to address the situation. And as much as we may prefer not to give someone feedback they might not want to hear, we need to have the courage to do this.

The preparation for this kind of hard conversation often involves a lot of thought and planning. What are the specific behaviors or results that are falling short of the mark? How can the feedback be delivered in a way that the person will understand and take onboard? What are the different ways the conversation could play out – what if the person objects to the feedback? What things should and shouldn’t be said in the conversation?

While some of this pre-thinking is good, there is a risk that the whole focus of the meeting can actually end up being centered on me. The leader who enters the meeting thinking “how can I make sure I say and do the right things so that there is no risk that I give the wrong message” is starting off on the wrong foot. They are starting on a foundation of fear and with a focus on self.

True leadership on the other hand is built on the foundation of love, not of fear. True leadership puts the other person at the center, not the self.

So if you you are going to have a hard conversation with someone, and you want to do it on the right foundation, then what is the most important thing to do in that meeting?

One word – “listen”.

There are a couple of reasons why listening is your number 1 priority in that kind of meeting.

Firstly, you don’t know the root cause of the end behaviors or results you are seeing. You can try and speculate, but you really don’t know for sure. The only way to get to the bottom of what is actually happening is to genuinely and intently listen.

Secondly, when you truly value someone, listening is the natural thing that flows. Listening is an act of conveying the worth you see in someone. You truly value them, and so you offer your time to listen and understand them.

We can spend lots of time planning and preparing to try and have the perfect hard conversation. Or we can simply prepare the clear set of observations we have, and then enter into a conversation where love for the person and listening are at the core.

If you approach hard conversations in this way, then the two of you together will find the right path forward. You may find that the person themselves volunteers to talk about the challenges before you even raise them. You may find unexpected factors and explanations for what you have been observing. You may find areas that someone needs help, and it opens the opportunity for you to help them. You may find someone thank you for helping them see something that had been a blind spot until now, but now they can start to act on it.

If you start from the foundation of love, these kind of “hard conversations” turn out to not be as hard as they seem that they will be. And in my experience they can be some of the most uplifting and transformational conversations that you can have.

As true leaders let us have the courage give our people honest feedback, and to truly value them and listen to them in the process.