Difficult conversations at work – a new approach

Human Resources 19th May 2021

Difficult conversations. They’re unavoidable. Your workplace may be the most harmonious of environments. The relationship you have with your most valued client may be productive and resilient. However, situations will inevitably arise when ‘something needs to be said’. You could be telling a client the project has been delayed, or perhaps you’re faced with conducting an awkward review with a team member. Both are an inevitable part of management.

How do you prepare for this kind of discussion? How do you find the right words? And, how do you manage the exchange so that it goes as smoothly and with the best possible outcome?

Preserving positive relationships
Naturally, we don’t look forward to holding difficult conversations that might (literally) end in tears or a phone being slammed down. It’s human nature to avoid potential conflict or upset. But avoidance is never the answer. The trick is to learn how to handle them in a way that produces a better outcome – less pain for you and less pain for the person you’re talking to. Let’s look at how to get what you need from these awkward conversations – while maintaining positive relationships.

Alter your mindset
Are you approaching the conversation with the idea that it’s going to be ‘difficult’? This is a sure-fire way to guarantee that you’ll be feeling nervous and upset even before it’s started. Instead, try framing the conversation in a positive way. For example, don’t tell yourself that you’ll be giving negative feedback. Think of it as a constructive conversation about development. You’re not telling the team member what they’re doing wrong. You’re offering up a solution to a challenge.

Keep calm and carry on
The more calm and centred you are, the better you’ll be are at handling difficult conversations. Try taking regular breaks throughout your normal working day to practice mindful breathing. This helps you to become calmly focused and prepares you for absorbing any blows that come your way. If, for example, a colleague comes to you with an issue that might lead to a tough conversation, excuse yourself – get a cup of coffee or take a brief stroll around the office. Collect your thoughts.

Plan but don’t script
It might help to plan what you’re going to say by jotting down notes and key points before your conversation. Drafting a script, however, isn’t a good idea. It’s very unlikely that the conversation will go to plan, and you’ll both look and sound inauthentic and artificial. Your strategy for the conversation should be flexible and contain a repertoire of possible responses.

Put yourself in other’s shoes
Don’t go into a difficult conversation with a my-way-or-the-highway approach. Ask yourself two questions:
‘What’s the problem?’
‘What does the other person think is the problem?’

If you’re unsure of the other person’s viewpoint, just ask. Show your counterpart that you care about their position and want to understand. Then you can look for overlap between your two positions.

Show compassion
Unless they’re handled carefully, these kinds of conversations can lead to strained working relationships. That’s why an empathetic approach is so important. Be considerate. Be compassionate. But don’t demand the same from the other party. Never say, ‘I feel bad about saying this.’ Don’t play the victim.

Slow down
Keep the pace of the conversation slow. Slowing your speech patterns and pausing before your replies enables you to find the right words and helps to defuse negative emotions. Listen carefully to the other person. That way, you’re more likely to address the right issues, and you’ll end up with a more fruitful exchange.

Can you give something back?
If you’re embarking on a conversation that puts the other person in a difficult position or takes something away from them, can you give something back? If, for instance, you’re issuing a formal notice of redundancy you could consider offering some outplacement to help the, secure alternative employment.

Reflect and learn
After a difficult conversation, find time to reflect. Think about what went well and what didn’t. Think about why you had certain reactions and what you might have said differently. Acknowledge how well you handled the conversation. Remember – handling a difficult conversation well isn’t just a skill. It’s an act of courage.

For more on managing difficult situations in the workplace, get in touch.

For straight-talking HR advice – 01604 763494

Or email – info@GravitasHR.co.uk

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