Handling Difficult Conversations at Work

Most people try to avoid the dreaded ‘difficult’ conversation; putting it off until it’s no longer a problem. But avoiding a conflict or issue does not make it go away. Whether the conversation is about poor performance, a personal issue, or redundancy – remember it will be difficult for both parties involved.

“Every challenge is made easier
with preparation and training”

As a manager, you will have no doubt faced some difficult conversations with your colleagues and those who you manage at some point in your working life. The key is making sure you put yourself in the other person’s shoes and don’t dwell on your fear. That’s the art of mastering the tricky chat…

1. Be Ready

As many athletes will know only too well, every challenge is made easier with preparation and training. Start off by considering what the ideal outcome of the conversation would be – whether it’s getting the person or people to make a behavioural change, or to keep their dignity if they are being told they are losing their job. If you’re nervous, why not practice at home until you find a way of getting the message across in a firm, but fair and friendly manner? If you sound too critical, the person may become resistant to your message. Also think about location – a private conversation should be exactly that, private, and be held face-to-face. If it’s a ‘telling off’, then your office may be ideal, but you might want a more neutral, less threatening location if it is to discuss redundancy, for example.

2. Stick to the facts

You’ll want to avoid confrontation and ‘slanging matches’ at all costs. To do so, keep it straight forward and specific, and never, ever, make it personal. Although it can be hard, try not to get emotional or angry. A good way to start is to admit to the person that you understand this is a difficult subject for both of you. Describe the actual behaviours that may be the issue and focus on this, not the person. If you spell out what is unacceptable, it gives the person something to work with. The best feedback is direct – speak without jargon and do more listening than talking.

3. Expect a reaction

If the person you’re speaking to has just lost their job, they may feel stressed, confused and upset. They might also be shocked, in denial and angry. You need to stay calm and remember that it’s common for someone to react this way in this type of situation. It’s your job to keep emotions under control and avoid arguments. Focus on the positive: if you’re having a chat about performance, it’s because you want to improve it, and know they can improve, so be optimistic and encouraging.

4. Collaborate

Allow some time for reflection. At the end of your meeting, let the person explain what they are going to do to improve (after they have accepted and agreed there is an issue), and let them show how they will resolve it – this empowers the person to take positive action. But if they feel they don’t want to say anything, don’t force them, it can be addressed later.

Finally, it’s important to plan some progress meetings every couple of weeks to see if things are changing. If they aren’t improving, well, then it might be time for another difficult conversation…

We hope that some of this advice may help you to handle those tricky conversations at work with your colleagues and peers. You might want to consider further training to hone your skills when it comes to managing and leading a team, feeding back to team members and performance appraisals. To find out more, why not give us a call on 01423-861-122 or fill in our short contact form – we’d love to help you!

by Mike Smith