Managing Difficult Conversations 1

(c) Sandra Pollock jpeg
Marilyn B – People Coach

We all have to deal with difficult conversations at some time or other in our lives.  So why is it that some people seem to have no problem at all with these and other people are filled with dread at the very thought.

In this the first of two pieces on the subject, I will be looking at dealing with handling difficult conversations in the workplace.

If you are a manager your role requires you to engage in a wide range of conversations with the people around you. Some conversations such as saying well done for a well completed piece of work or bringing in a huge contract are more enjoyable conversations.

However, when you have to deal with other issues, such as the need to get staff to improve their performance, personal hygiene, inappropriate behaviour, redundancy, disciplinary and grievance, these are certainly not comfortable conversations to have to deal with.  But in your role as a manager, these types of conversations are par for the course.   You are required to manage all your conversations effectively and you can.

There are, as you can imagine, a number of reasons why some conversation are more difficult.  Some of these reasons can arise from you, so you need to consider:

  • How you feel about the topic to be discussed;
  • How you feel about the person you are going to be having the conversation with;
  • How experienced and how confident you are at dealing with the issues at hand;
  • Your level knowledge of the organisation’s procedures for dealing with the issue to be discussed;
  • Your knowledge of the legal responsibilities on you and on your organisation, if applicable;

Understanding ourselves is the first place to start. Being honest about our opinions on things and people, and being prepared to suspend these can make a huge difference to making these conversation easier and improving the likelihood of success.

Other reasons why conversations may be or could become difficult can arise when:

  • issues are personal,
  • issues may be embarrassing,
  • it may be perceived as criticism;
  • there are different opinions to the facts and/or data;
  • the issues are important to us;
  • emotions run high;
  • the relationship has already broken down,

It is also important to remember that if you are feeling uncomfortable, so is the other person(s) involved.

So what can you do to improve your ability to handle difficult conversations?  Here are some tips that can help:

  1. Accept and understand that this is part of your role and your responsibility. Its not personal, it’s your job and you can do this just as well as you do any other part of your job. It just takes practice, and
  2. 2. Preparation
    1. Prepare your facts; Get the facts first and get them straight
    2. Don’t rely on hear say or even on your own assumption or opinions;
    3. Don’t jump to conclusions;
    4. Be fair in your assessment of the situation;
    5. Remember there are at least two side to every story;
  3. 3. Prepare yourself
    1. Read through any policies and procedures the company may have for dealing with this subject;
    2. Discuss the matter with HR if you need some guidance;
    3. Plan to have the discussion when you are not stressed or agitated yourself;
    4. Make sure you have had lunch (if after or around lunch time) or at least a glass of water – you cannot concentrate or perform effectively if you are dehydrated or hungry;
    5. If you are the line manager, realise that there is a higher expectation on you to behave in a mature and responsibly manner – take control of your own emotional state, throughout the discussion and afterwards (remember Gordon Brown and the lady from Oldham);
    6. Start with a softer approach; use a more coaching style, particularly if your wish to change behaviour and develop the skills of the person you are in conversation with;
    7. Decide on what you will say and how you will be saying it, practice if necessary;
  4. 4. Define your goals
    1. Think about what you would like to accomplish as a result of conversation;
    2. What are your outcomes? What needs to be changed? What needs to be improved?  By whom? When by? Etc;
    3. Also consider your goals for the relationship with this individual long term, far beyond this conversation.  As a manager your ultimate aim is to get the job done, using all the resources at your disposal, this includes your staff and this person.
  5. 5. Prepare your recipient
    1. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes – how would you like to be treated if the tables were turned?
    2. Allow the other person time to prepare; where possible; Tell them you would like to speak with them, what about and give them a time and a location your meeting;
    3. Thank the person before and after the meeting for attending and taking part;
    4. Give the other person the opportunity to give their account of things, their response, opinions and suggestions for improvement and moving things forward;
    5. Realise that no one likes to fail or to find out that they have not done something right, or to receive bad or negative feedback or news.  Some of what you may be picking up from the other person may well be due to embarrassment or annoyance with themselves – not with you.  Don’t take what you see or hear personally;
    6. Treat the other person with respect – engage in active listening;
    7. Don’t ignore emotions.  Recognise and acknowledge them.  Be sure not to pander to them to the point of allowing them to derail the discussion completely.  If necessary take a break, but come back to it;
  6. Set smart objectives for taking this matter forward;
  7. Set the right environment. The type of conversation you will need to have will influence the best place for the conversation.  Always take into account privacy and confidentially;
  8. If you have to deliver bad news, do so in a straight forward and as simple a manner as possible.  Make this conversation clear and deliver this news as early as possible in the conversation;
  9. Get someone to coach you through dealing with difficult conversations, so that you can be better prepared and better practised;
  10. Be honest with yourself about your own strengths and weaknesses in these situations and work on improving you.

Finally, realise that everyone genuinely wants to achieve. It may be that disappointments and unhelpful situations in the past have caused hurt and frustration, so that this individual now hides that fact, but it is true that everyone wants to succeed.  So try to work with them to find a way to help them to do this and to come up with a solution that is best for both parties.

If you have questions around people management that you would like help or advice with, just send me and email and I will respond.

Marilyn B
People Management Coach