Wed, Jul

We need to talk

Do you shy away from difficult conversations in the workplace? Many managers do, but there are ways of making them less painful as Natasha Stone, a communications consultant at the Learning Consultancy Partnership, explains.

Difficult conversations at work are usually the responsibility of management, whether they involve settling a dispute between colleagues, broaching a sensitive subject matter, or breaking bad news such as redundancies or pay cuts. In tough economic times, in which managers are put under extra pressure to lift staff morale and maintain high productivity, it comes as no surprise that a recent survey found that the majority of managers are either often or sometimes putting off difficult conversations. 

However, managers who fail to tackle difficult conversations in a prompt and decisive manner may risk significant damage to employee engagement and turnover, as well as more formal stages such as employment tribunals.

Earlier this year Learning Consultancy Partnership’s report ‘Handling difficult conversations at work’ was published, bringing together the results of surveying over 100 managers and HR professionals. The results found a wide range of subject managers that managers find the most difficult, with the top seven as follows: behavioural issues (23%); poor performance (20%); personal hygiene (20%); firing or redundancy (11%); absence or lateness (6%); communicating change (5%), and an individual’s personal difficulties (3%).

The survey did find that many organisations recognise the importance of effectively handling difficult conversations, with most providing coaching to support their managers (84%) and almost half using training (48%). The survey also found that most managers (68%) rate themselves as either extremely or very confident dealing with difficult conversations. However, responses from HR managers suggested that this support is not always sufficient, with one in four (24%) feeling that managers are trained to handle difficult conversations either extremely badly or very badly.

The report suggested that managers may spend extra time preparing for a conversation when worried about the response; only a small minority (4%) of managers state that they do not seek advice from others and the majority (63%) explain that they put off difficult conversations due to apprehension of how the other person will react.

Managers need the appropriate information and tools to prepare for difficult conversations - as well as training or coaching if under extra pressure - in order to have the confidence and emotional intelligence to deal with difficult reactions. But here are some key pointers.

Get the facts straight

Prior to having, or even planning the conversation, ensure that all the facts are gathered; this means collecting a balanced view that is not based on hearsay, as well as preparing all necessary data. The latter is particularly important for conversations that may stimulate emotional or defensive responses such as behavioural issues or poor performance; collecting the necessary evidence allows the issue to be discussed in a clear and neutral manner that will not seem personal.

Clarify the message

The next step before beginning the conversation should be to clarify the exact purpose of the conversation and what the desired outcome is; whilst this may seem obvious, it can often be neglected when the manager perceives a clear problem that needs ‘sorting out’, such as absence or behavioural issues. It is important to consider potential responses and to determine exactly how far you are able to compromise on a solution.

Consider emotional responses

Before the conversation, some time should be taken to consider how the individual may respond emotionally, for example if the issue is poor performance they may interpret the conversation as criticising their ability and dedication, and respond by being upset or defensive - in this case, the manager should take care to present the information as neutrally as possible. Where possible, the manager should also try to ascertain the individual’s personal situation and whether they are under any additional stress; this may be the explanation behind behavioural issues, and it may also suggest how they are likely to handle the difficult conversation.

Consider how you respond to conflict

In order to be able to focus on responding to the other person’s emotions and bringing the conversation to a positive conclusion, it can be highly beneficial to spend time thinking about how your own body responds to conflict and what the warning signs are. Even if you feel you are able to respond to certain behaviour in a calm and rational manner, remember that feelings such as impatience or annoyance may be communicated non-verbally, such as through body language and tone of voice. Also consider what types of actions in others can stimulate certain responses from you.

Bite the bullet

It is important that once the need for a conversation has been identified, it is dealt with promptly before the problem escalates and affects performance or morale. Once fully prepared, find an appropriate time and place to deal with the conversation; the morning will not be a good idea if the individual may be distracted from work after receiving bad news, and conversely the end of a Friday may make the conversation rushed. There may be organisational procedures to follow for grievances and disciplinaries, however for most conversations the responsibility to promptly tackle the conversation will fall to the manager.

Use a productive opening

The opening of the conversation will help to shape the direction of the entire meeting; an unhelpful opening that implies blame is likely to make the individual stressed and emotional, e.g. “You are failing to meet the targets. What are you going to do about this?”. On the other hand, choosing an opening that summarises the problem neutrally and invites collaboration is likely to lead to a more positive conversations, e.g. “I have been looking through your performance reports and have highlighted some areas that I think can be improved - perhaps we could discuss this together?”. Notice that the more positive example uses ‘I’ to explain the problem and ‘you’ when focusing on the solution; taking care to use ‘I’ and ‘you’ in such a way throughout the conversation will ensure that the individual does not feel criticised or blamed and is able to focus on finding a solution rather than defending themself.

Acknowledge and invite emotions throughout

Whilst emotions should be responded to and understood from the beginning of the conversation, the manager should be aware that emotional responses may continue throughout the conversation and will need to be constantly acknowledged if the individual is the feel satisfied by the conclusions of the conversation. It may be necessary to clarify and explore emotional responses and it is essential that presumptions are not made of the reasons behind emotions, so ask simple questions like “you don't feel happy about this - why is that?”. Also remember that whilst both parties may appear to agree on the facts, what these actually mean may differ greatly, such as who is at fault, what the intentions were or what the consequences are.

An effective way to acknowledge and clarify both perspectives is to use the word ‘and’ - e.g. “So you think we should change the process and I think we don't need to - let's talk about this”. Of course, strong emotions may not always be present, but where they are, inviting them is essential to making the employee feel valued and motivated; showing empathy will not change the facts of the matter and must not be seen as watering down the message.

Collaborate to find a solution

Once the individual’s perspective and emotions have been clarified, the manager can summarise where similarities lie, in order to encourage collaboration on a solution, or to show how the necessary action has benefits for both sides. When bringing the conversation to a close, the manager should summarise what the solution is - and how it is satisfactory to both sides - and then agree on who should do what next and if there will be a follow up.

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