There is no avoiding difficult conversations in the workplace but dealing with them in the correct manner can create a better outcome for all parties, says Anita Douglas
Difficult conversations are a way of life in any workplace, whether it is delivering feedback on areas that need to be improved, communicating change or addressing behavioural issues.
There is no avoiding them, no matter how hard we may try.
Dealing with delicate situations effectively takes a lot of practice and experience, and even then, it’s never easy.
The ability to deal with sensitive issues and employee emotions is an integral part of effective line management and is very important to managing performance, promoting attendance and improving team dynamics.
Most managers instinctively know when it is the right moment to deal with a problem. Often, there are warning signs that something isn’t quite right and it is better to resolve those problems before they get bigger.
Listening to the Warning Signs
To avoid such problems early on, you can help by:
- Having a quiet word at the first sign something is wrong. If not, you may mislead the employee by giving the impression that there isn’t a problem.
- Keeping in touch with your team. If you are approachable and willing to listen, they are more likely to come to you at an early stage when you may be able to offer support.
- Using employees as sounding boards for how other team members are feeling; that way morale is maintained.
Getting the Most Out of the Conversation
Many managers make the mistake of prolonging the conversation or intensifying it rather than resolving or restricting it. Knowing when to expand a conversation (seeking clarification and gaining understanding) and when to restrict it (in terms of deciding what happens next) is only learned through experience.
Emotional Intelligence is key. In practical terms, this means being aware that emotions drive our behaviour and impact people both positively and negatively. We must learn how to manage those emotions – both our own and others – especially when we are under pressure.
It is common for an employee to become confrontational during this conversation. You have the freedom to choose how best to respond.
So here are some tips to ensure you get the most from the conversation:
- Intent – always have a positive intent during these conversations. This positive intent will help you mitigate and manage confrontation should it arise.
- Remain objective and non-judgemental – people make mistakes but it doesn’t make them a bad person. Focus on the facts and evidence you have gathered and your personal observations and look for a way forward.
- Seek first to understand and then be understood – ask lots of open questions just as you would in a coaching conversation.
- Breathe – focus on your breathing, counting each breath in and out for a count of four.
- Watch your tone of voice – even in confrontation remain calm and confident.
- Steady your body language – concentrate on maintaining a neutral face. Anger and frustration is easy to transmit and acts as a feedback loop which the employee will pick up on. Relax your shoulders.
- Show empathy – let’s face it, most people don’t come into work with an intention to mess up, upset customers or cause their manager distress. People will always have a reason for their actions and most of the time the intent will be positive. Recognise this and then explore the impact. Whilst they had a positive intent, knowing and understanding that the impact was negative, will help them understand in more detail in how to make the changes.
- Bring the conversation back to the issue in hand – you control the conversation and how it progresses, what tactics are working and if you need to change your approach.
- Do not be afraid of silence – don’t rush to fill this space, use it to gather your thoughts.