7 Ways To Handle Difficult Conversations In The Work Place
June 08, 2016
It’s quite natural to dread difficult conversations in the workplace, whether it’s giving someone bad news, disciplining a subordinate, or letting a colleague know that they’ve overstepped boundaries.
Often, we go further than this- and put the conversation off indefinitely because we’re so in fear of the possible response- imagining a worst-case scenario of tears, anger, resentment, or even non-compliance.
Of course, dreading and postponing difficult conversations is a futile strategy, for nothing positive can be achieved through worry and avoidance. And it’s not as if you’ll never have to face another difficult conversation— they will dog you throughout your working life unless you develop a strategy now to defeat the fear and approach potentially difficult conversations in a calm and hopeful manner.
Hopeful may seem a strange word to use in the context of difficult conversations, but so often we doom our tough conversations to failure because we frame them in a relentlessly negative fashion and forget to focus on the ultimate outcome we’re seeking: a mature and helpful conversation focussed on an improvement. Difficult conversations shouldn’t be about reprimands and punishment: they should be about reaching good solutions!
Dealing With Difficult Conversations
1. Start by assessing your own motivations for the conversation. Do you feel badly disposed towards this person? Are you genuinely wanting to see them improve, or are you just angry at them and wanting to reprimand them? Are there any personal issues on your part clouding your judgement? Be as dispassionate as possible when assessing your own mindset towards this upcoming conversation.
2. Get yourself in a calm and positive mind-frame. Deep breathing techniques and positive body language can really assist you to get in the right frame of mind to remain calm if the other person reacts badly. If you have a clear mind, you will certainly have a more confident and calm response to any objections or hostility you may encounter.
3. Schedule the meeting wisely. Don’t allow too much time to pass between when you request the meeting and actually have the meeting- this just allows both parties to build up more tension about it. If you fear a negative reaction, schedule the meeting for late in the day so the employee can go home immediately afterwards and let it sink in- rather than having them work angrily alongside their colleagues all day and potentially creating a toxic atmosphere.
4. Don’t over-plan. It’s definitely good to prepare- you need to have a clear idea of what you want to address and it’s worth imagining a few of their possible reactions or counter-arguments. However, people are not robots and you can’t accurately predict what the response will be, so don’t go in with a rigid script- you’ll just come off as non-genuine, and you’ll struggle if they hit you with a response or criticism you weren’t expecting.
5. Don’t bombard them with lots of different criticisms. If this is a disciplinary issue, have a strategy where you will address one or two key issues and have several concrete examples of the behaviour you’re hoping to improve. If you try and cover every little thing they’ve ever done wrong, they’ll feel like they are being attacked and will probably think the problem is hopeless. Don’t dwell on the negative, move on quickly to propose positive solutions.
6. Put yourself in their shoes. The ultimate aim of a conversation is to achieve the best results, with minimum pain on both sides. Remember, this conversation will almost certainly cause them pain- even if they’re showing it through anger. Be compassionate and avoid personal or hurtful remarks- even in the face of their anger or own hurtful remarks. Frame your concerns professionally and again, base your comments on observed behaviours. Have specific examples you can discuss along with their impact. In the spirit of improvement be equally clear on what behaviours you are looking for from them. By sparing them pain you’re also sparing yourself pain!
7. Go in with an open mind. No conversation is a one way street, so go in there with an enquiring and open mind. Always give them space to talk and explain themselves, before taking back control of the session, adapting your response to what you’ve learnt, and stating what result you require going forward.
You probably noticed that these tips are about YOU, not about the other person. You can never safely predict how someone will react to a difficult conversation, but you can certainly control how YOU react, through solid preparation, a willingness to listen, and a positive mindset.