4 Easy Steps to Preparing for Difficult Conversations

Can you remember the last time you had to have a difficult conversation with an employee? As managers, we like to think that we’re prepared for anything, but having tough conversations is one of the most difficult, and at times, scary things about the job.

I had a team member who’d get very aggressive. I knew that she’d intimidated other managers and her previous manager had given me some tips on how to ‘handle’ her.

I watched her in meetings and she’d talk over others and show visible signs of anger, even to the extent that other team members feared her.

This obviously needed to be dealt with as I could see it was destroying the team.

So in our next 1-2-1, I felt nervous, but I decided to prepare for, and approach the conversation using GROW.

G: Goals

R: Reality

O: Objectives

W: Will/way forward

What I thought would be a very difficult conversation went better than expected and after speaking to her, I realised that a lot of her behaviour was driven by frustration that things sometimes didn’t move fast enough. We agreed that if I felt she was going too far in meetings, that I’d give her a signal. We left the meeting with specific ideas on how to improve things. She felt listened to and understood, and I felt very relieved.

Preparing for difficult conversations is essential. If you don’t, you can fall into the trap of becoming overly emotional or confrontational and failing to achieve a positive outcome for all parties involved.

Yes, difficult conversations can be uncomfortable and every situation will be different, but preparing for them properly can help you develop better relationships with your team, which results in a more harmonious and productive workplace.

Preparing for difficult conversations

1.     Gather your thoughts and request a meeting

This is where you ‘set the stage’ for the conversation. Feeling prepared will make having the conversation seem less intimidating. At this stage, you might want to take a notebook and write down:

·       How you’re going to open the conversation, talk about the issue at hand, and then give examples of the undesirable behaviour.

·       How the behaviour is affecting the team and the business.

Next, request a 1-2-1 meeting with the team member involved. Make sure you request it in a positive way; don’t make them feel like they have to go to the headteacher’s office because they’re in trouble! I’ve heard team members say to their manager “what have I done wrong.”

That’s not a good start!

2.     Listen

When you meet with your team member, it’s important to start by discussing why you want to have this conversation with them. Remember what you wrote down in step 1 and be constructive, it’s not supposed to be an interrogation.

The most important thing you can do during the meeting is to listen to your team member’s perspective on the situation and try to understand it. Everyone sees things differently, and you can understand a different point of view without necessarily agreeing with it.

Ask open-ended questions that encourage discussion and make sure you really listen to their answers. Paraphrasing what they’ve said can show that you understand and it can help you avoid any misunderstandings.

3.    Be clear on your position   

Now it’s your turn to make sure your team member is clear on what you think about the situation. Tell them that you understand their point of view, but be clear on why and how their behaviour falls short of what is expected. Be sure to let them know that this is not about who is right or wrong, it’s about finding a solution that works for everyone.

4.     End the conversation with a plan  

Every difficult conversation should be brought to a conclusion by making a plan to solve the issue that works for everyone involved. A plan can also be useful to keep the team member accountable and on track, and it also serves as a handy reference for you if you ever need to deal with the same sort of issue again.

Work with your team member to brainstorm solutions to problems and put clear next steps in place. What has to happen for things to improve, and when will you review things?

At the end of the meeting, thank your team member for their time and for showing a commitment to improving things in the workplace.

Handling difficult conversations is one of the most difficult things about managing people, but if you approach it positively and focus on solutions rather than problems, there’s more of a chance that you’ll have a better outcome and a much happier workplace!

Most managers need to have difficult conversations at some point with members of their team. The truth is, even though it might not seem like it at times, your team does want to work, they want to trust you, develop and grow, and invest themselves in doing something with meaning.

They want to do well, but sometimes things can get in the way.

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