Having difficult conversations

Are you sitting comfortably?

Welcome to my series of podcasts that will help you to navigate those inevitable difficult events at work that are part of being a manager. 

Today I want to talk about how to have difficult conversations at work. Whether you manage people directly or you work in Human Resources, one day you’ll need to have a difficult conversation. 

Workplaces can be a melting pot of unacceptable and questionable behaviours; people might dress inappropriately, arrive late at work every day, or their performance might not be up to scratch. Whatever it is, these sorts of situations require careful handling, and employees need feedback on their behaviour and how it’s affecting the organisation. 

So how can you prepare for a difficult conversation? 

Well, the thing you should never do is avoid them. You may have had an unpleasant experience in the past; maybe someone lashed out at you verbally or hung up the phone, but handling difficult conversations and doing it well leads to a better outcome for you and for the person you’re speaking to. Here’s how to make sure you get what you need from a difficult conversation:

Reframe it in your mind

If you’ve already decided that a conversation is going to be difficult or unpleasant, you’ll most likely feel nervous or upset about it. So instead of dreading the conversation because you feel like you’re giving someone negative feedback, why not think of it as a constructive conversation on how you can help someone improve their performance and how they feel about work? 

The next thing to do is take a moment

You’ll be better equipped to deal with difficult conversations if you feel calm and focused. If you need to have a difficult conversation, take a short stroll, get a coffee, or just simply take some deep breaths which will help you gather your thoughts. 

Think about what you’re going to say but don’t be robotic

By all means jot down some notes and key points before you have the conversation, but don’t make it too ‘scripted’ when you speak to someone. Use simple, clear, and direct language. 

See the issue from the other person’s point of view

Before you have a difficult conversation, establish what the problem is and what the other person thinks the problem is. If you don’t understand their perspective, always ask because this leaves less room for confusion. Attempting to understand how the other person feels can go in your favour and it shows them that you care. 

Show compassion 

If you need to discuss a sensitive topic with an employee, always be considerate and show empathy. But don’t apologise and paint yourself as a victim or as ‘the bad guy’ by saying things like ‘I feel so bad about saying this…’. All someone will expect of you is to be honest and fair. 

Slow down the pace of the conversation

When situations are tense, pausing before you respond to what the other person has said is a good way of diffusing negative emotions. Listen and take the time to understand what someone is saying so that the right issues are dealt with. This will make any conversation better. 

Give the other person options 

If you’re doing something like laying someone off, offer to write a letter of recommendation for them. Giving someone options shows that you respect them. 

Reflect on the conversation afterwards

Ask yourself what went well and what could have gone better. Why did you react the way you did? How do others handle difficult conversations and what could you learn from them? 

So, we’ve looked at the principles to remember when having a difficult conversation, now I want to drill down into how exactly you should give an employee feedback.

Firstly, get their permission to give them feedback. Approach them and tell them you’d like to talk to them and agree a time and place if needed. If they feel like they have some say in how and when they get the feedback, it can make them more receptive to what you have to say. 

Prepare them for a potentially difficult conversation by telling them that what you wish to discuss is difficult to share. If others have complained to you about the employee, don’t make things worse by telling them that people have complained about them as this is likely to make them feel embarrassed or worse. 

When you’re speaking to them, be straightforward and use simple language. Tell them that you’re speaking to them because you need to address the issue for the good of the organisation. Explain how positive changes in their behaviour will have a positive impact on the organisation while taking no action at all will affect their job. 

Be sure to reach an agreement about what the employee will do to change their behaviour and review this plan of action regularly to see that it’s adhered to. Make sure the employee understands the feedback you’re giving them and what they need to do to address the issues. If no progress or improvements are made, the next step is then to take disciplinary action. 

Becoming better at having difficult conversations is possible, and it’s crucial because it can be the difference between good working relationships with valued employees, and damaged relationships with disengaged employees. 

I hope that you got some good tips from today’s podcast, and I’ll see you next time for the next one in the series which looks at dealing with difficult conversations. 

This is The People Mentor, signing off. 

Leave a comment