Managing difficult conversations in the workplace

Poor performance, personality clashes, complaints and redundancies; nobody likes to have difficult conversations. Managing difficult conversations at work can be uncertain territory. To ensure that all parties leave your next delicate meeting feeling good we’ve put together our 5 top tips for managing difficult conversations in the office.

Before getting to the tops themselves, one overriding factor is time-frame management. We cannot overstate this. Nip things in the bud straight away before they become awkward and uncomfortable. If you are in a management role people will expect for you to manage. Having awkward conversations foes with the territory. The quicker action is taken the less difficult the scenario will be.

1. Clarity is key – What is the problem?

Don’t beat around the bush when it comes to why you’re meeting. Outline the reason for the conversation from the get go to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Being subtle about the issue can result in the other parties unsure of what is being discussed and what is required to resolve the situation and how serious the matter is.

An unclear grasp on the issue at hand can mean that your employee cannot take away what they are doing wrong and how to improve performance or behaviours.

The other key factor to keep in mind is that default positions of many people is to defend and make excuses for poor performance/behaviours. The clearer you are, the less likely this is to occur.

2. Know the desired outcome

Prepare for the difficult conversation by knowing what your best case outcome is. Whatever that outcome is, it is important to head into that meeting with expectations. This will help you to direct the conversation where you want it and to know when it has reached a conclusion.

A greater level of structure and purpose will make you feel less awkward and more confident in managing that difficult conversation.

Get all your facts straight and know what you are aiming towards, this is essential.

3. Respect & manage emotions

Emotions can run high in difficult, personal conversations and it is important to learn how to manage your own and assist your employee through emotions that they may experience. Where difficult conversations are concerned, emotions will predominantly be negative so it is even more crucial that they are dealt with properly for workplace morale as well as legal ramifications.

Allow an upset or angry employee time to calm down and collect themselves if emotions run high, offering a sympathetic ear that removes any feeling of being ‘attacked’.

Under no circumstances should you do either of the following:

  1. Ignore people who are upset and just keep rolling- you must acknowledge when someone is struggling and upset, check in and then proceed when you have confirmed that you can keep going.
  2. Allow emotions to hijack a meeting that needs to occur. As above, some people will try to avoid taking responsibility and can use being upset as an excuse to halt the meeting. It’s totally reasonable to have a time out and as above, you must check in and acknowledge what’s going on for someone, but practicing firm empathy is essential. This takes practice!

4. Listen

Managing difficult conversations is done well when it is a two-way conversation. Present the matter to be discussed, your perspective and the impact it is having on the team. Ask questions that are of an enquiring rather than investigating nature and allow your employee a chance to respond. It can highlight where management processes could improve to prevent the same thing happening in future.

Don’t feel a need to fill silences, let the person think. They well be a processor, rather than a fast responder, keep this in mind.

5. Setting

We’ve covered the what and the why, but the where can be just as important. Holding the meeting in your office with you sitting behind your desk can create a divide and an imbalance of power. Conducting the meeting in neutral territory such as a boardroom, private breakout area or coffee shop down the road can level out the power balance and make an employee feel more comfortable, leading to a better outcome for everyone involved.

If you are interested in coaching for management required to have difficult conversations with staff, or using a HR consultant to help navigate and manage these difficult conversations, get in touch with Coaching Combinations via email or by calling 0412 155 567.

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