What to Do When Difficult Conversations Turn Negative

Hello and welcome to my podcast. I’m Nicola from The People Mentor.

Ah, the difficult conversation. This is the thing that almost every manager dreads, no matter how experienced they are or how in control they consider themselves to be. 

Try as you might; if you manage people, you won’t be able to avoid having them. The key to navigating difficult conversations is to be prepared. Suppose you’ve read all the management books and blogs and listened to the podcasts. In that case, you’ll know that it’s all about understanding the underlying reasons why an employee’s performance is falling short of what you expect and then supporting them to change things for the better.

Sounds easy peasy, right? 

It would be if every single employee reacted in the way you expected and you knew exactly how to respond in every situation, but sadly, life is not like that. 

Sometimes, difficult conversations can turn negative, and knowing how to deal with this is part skill and part self-awareness.

How would you deal with a barbed comment or a perceived slight or personal attack from an employee? Would you be tempted to bite back? 

Or would you be able to pause and consider that maybe the employee doesn’t mean what they are saying; they are only angry, fearful, going through a bad time, or attempting self-preservation? 

The ability to stop, think, and be self-aware can make all the difference during a difficult conversation. 

Biting back can fan the flames and escalate things in an already fraught emotional situation. Staying calm can bring things back under control and get things back on a more reasonable footing. 

Your response can make all the difference. 

Consider this. 

You’ve got to have a difficult conversation with a team member. 

You’ve ruminated on it, worried about it, and even downright avoided it for as long as possible, but it’s got to the point of no return now. The conversation has to happen. 

You consider the issue at hand. 

Maybe it’s poor performance, frequent absence, or maybe they often roll into work late. Or maybe it’s something about their behaviour that is causing serious harm to the team. 

Whatever it is, you rehearse it in your head and think things may go okay. 

Until that is, the dreaded day of the conversation comes, and things go terribly. 

It’s not inevitable that a conversation will turn negative, but you have to be prepared for the possibility.

Employees might get angry, cry, or attack as a form of defence, so you have to be able to meet that with a calm and measured response that has a much better chance of defusing the situation than shouting back at them! 

Let’s look at some examples of situations where employees might react negatively and how you should (and shouldn’t) respond. 

So the first one, imagine you’re talking to an employee who is always late. This is the third time they’ve been late this week, so it’s time to have the conversation.

You say something like, “I’m concerned about the times you have been late for work recently. I’ve noticed you’ve been late three times this week already.”

The employee protests that another team member is often late and asks what you will do about that. 

This is quite predictable. Deflecting blame onto someone else is a common form of defence when someone feels threatened. 

So what should you do?

Don’t say, “We’re talking about you, not about them”, as this feels a bit like what a parent would say to a child about his or her sibling.

Instead, say that you’ve had conversations with others in person and show a willingness to support the employee to improve the situation. You could say, “Is there anything preventing you from getting to work on time?”

You never know what’s going on in people’s lives, and asking about it in this way might help you get to the bottom of what’s causing the issue. 

In the next situation, you approach the employee about an issue, and they completely deny that there is a problem and/or that they have any part in it. 

For example, a few team members have come to you and told you that this person is constantly negative and complaining and spreads gossip about others. 

When you approach the employee about it, they immediately ask who told you. This is usually an attempt to apportion blame elsewhere. The last thing you want is to get pulled into an ‘I said/they said’ situation. 

What should you do in this scenario?

Don’t bat off their question by saying something like, “It doesn’t matter who told me.”

Instead, say that you were told something in confidence and you wish to keep that information confidential, just as you would if they told you something. Then redirect the conversation to an assertive statement like “If it’s okay with you, I’d like to discuss the situation in the team.”

If the employee continues to deny that they were involved in any issues, say that you aren’t interested in debating who did or didn’t do what but that you want to agree that what’s been happening isn’t acceptable or good for the team. 

Saying something like this means you aren’t accusing the employee of anything, but they will know that you will be paying attention from now on and this might make them rein in any negative behaviour. 

In the last scenario, imagine you’re in the middle of a conversation with an employee, and they burst into tears. You’ve no doubt seen this before. The thing to do here is to be empathetic and allow them time to steady themselves while remembering not to try to minimise their feelings. Whether or not you think a mountain has been made out of a molehill, the situation is obviously emotional or upsetting for them, so respect that. When they can, carry on with the conversation and handle it sensitively and with empathy. 

As you know, handling difficult conversations can be tricky, especially if they turn negative. It might help you to remember that however an employee reacts, they are usually just trying to protect themselves. It’s your job as a manager to let them know that you want to work with them to solve the problems and make the workplace better for everyone. 

No one expects to avoid difficult conversations when they manage a team, but do you feel like you’re having more and more of them these days?

Does something feel not quite right within your team?

Things might be ticking over, but do you need help taking your team from good to great?

I can help. 

I’m a business consultant with over 30 years of experience in building and leading high-performing teams. I’m a safe pair of hands who knows what’s needed to help the team fulfil their potential. 

Think of me as a team fixer for troubled teams. 

I’ll help you get to grips with your team issues and help you restore harmony and improve productivity.

Contact me today to learn more about how my Team Turnaround package can help you.

Nip those team niggles in the bud once and for all.

I hope that after this podcast, you feel more confident when you need to have difficult conversations. 

This is The People Mentor signing off. See you next time! 

Leave a comment