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Having that conversation with a volunteer-you know the one, the one where you have to discuss a complaint during that mean chat that will forever label you a terrible, cold person for hurting the helpless volunteer. You may as well burn the volunteer’s house down too while you’re at it-that’s how soul-less you are.
So, how do we start a difficult conversation with a volunteer after a complaint has been made? And how do we prepare ourselves to have the confidence to do the right thing without melting down into mush? For what it’s worth, here are a few suggestions that I hope help you.
Remember that you are the best person for this challenge: You have recruited and cultivated this volunteer. You care about them and will do what is necessary to see them succeed. And leaving them to fail is ultimately more cruel than helping them remain on track. Tip: Keep reminding yourself that clearing the air and guiding a volunteer is a growing experience for all of you and you will get through this.
Practice your opening line: “I wanted to sit down with you today and chat about how things are going,” is fine, but volunteers really need us to get to the point. The more you dance around the topic, the more uncomfortable it becomes for you and the volunteer. It’s better if you nicely state the complaint up front. “Emma, I wanted to meet with you today, because one of the visitors to our museum called us to say that last Friday you were too busy to show their disabled son where the bathroom was located. You are one of our finest docents and have been for over five years now and I want to hear your side of the story. Do you recall this particular incident?” Tip: Tell yourself to use the exact words of the complaint-don’t water them down because the volunteer deserves the opportunity to respond to the exact charges that were brought.
Don’t apologize for the conversation: Starting out with “I’m so sorry to call you in for this,” or “I hate that we have to talk about this” creates the impression that your organization’s ethical standards are meaningless. Tip: Tell yourself that being neutral, not apologetic helps the volunteer think and respond more clearly.
Assure the volunteer that you are open-minded and fair but don’t put words in their mouth: “Emma, we want to hear your side of the story,” or, “Emma, let’s talk about what happened,” is better than saying, “I’m sure the complaint is unfounded,” or “this must be a misunderstanding.” Tip: Tell yourself that if the complaint is indeed a misunderstanding, then it will surely become obvious and not to worry. If the complaint is well founded, then you have an amazing opportunity to help this volunteer regain their footing.
Don’t diminish the person(s) who made the complaint: Saying, “don’t worry, this person complains about everyone,” or “they probably just had a bad day,” negates the actual complaint. Tip: Tell yourself that bridging relationships is one of your strong skill sets and seeing both sides validated is a chance to bring both sides together.
Allow ample time for discussion: Here is the area in which you will excel at nice-guy volunteer management. These conversations ebb and flow-but the savvy volunteer manager rides the spoken waves with the recurring message that the volunteer’s time and effort is invaluable and their concerns are worth hearing and discussing, even if their actions are in the wrong. Tip: Trust your instincts to tell you when you know the volunteer is satisfied that their feelings, opinions and aspirations are validated. That is when you can move forward with a resolution.
Follow up with diligence: This step takes you from a manager to a leader. Speak with both parties after your initial conversation to ensure that the resolution works for both and that there are no lingering issues. Tip: Use your best mediation skills to assure both parties that your goal is to provide the finest volunteer involvement possible and that you believe in each person. Keep following up periodically until you see the resolution has been met.
We can view difficult conversations in the same way we view traveling to a new place. We can tell ourselves that we will hate the new place by thinking things like “It’s going to be too hot,” “I will hate the food,” “the people are too strange,” etc. That usually becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Or, like the person who welcomes traveling somewhere out of the comfort zone, we can entertain the idea that this new experience will help us grow, both as a manager and leader.
Choosing to grow and embrace challenging conversations will strengthen not only your program, but yourself as well. So, while it is perfectly normal to dread a difficult conversation, don’t let the opportunity to excel go to waste.
You’re not the bad guy, you’re the leader.