Why It’s Okay When Difficult Conversations Go Wrong

Difficult conversations: Two words that strike fear into the heart of any manager, no matter how experienced you are or how many times you feel like you’ve gone into battle before. 

When I was thinking about the direction in which I wanted to approach difficult conversations in this podcast, it struck me that the most helpful thing for you would be for me to get real. 

I’ve written plenty on difficult conversations, the theory and the practice. Do a quick Google search, and you’ll find loads of the same kind of thing. 

‘How to have difficult conversations’

‘5 steps to having a difficult conversation’

They give a good overview of the topic, but the problem is we are human. Our conversations, reactions, and actions don’t follow a formula. 

Asking someone to be calm doesn’t always get the desired result, in fact it can have the opposite effect!

Sometimes, we will fail to keep our emotions in check, and in this podcast, I want to talk about some of my experiences with difficult conversations, why they don’t always go the way you want them to, and why that’s perfectly okay. 

When I think about difficult conversations I’ve had, and there have been many, a few examples stick in my mind. 

In one role, I got promoted. I had a manager who wasn’t happy that I’d got the job because she had also gone for it. She went out of her way to make my life a misery, and one day, I’d just had enough. I took her in for a 121, and things got quite heated. In fact, I ended up in tears. 

She was shouting and being awful, so I asked her to take some time out. I explained what behaviour I had witnessed from her and asked what I could do to help her accept that I’d been given the job role so we could move forward. 

Then, she tried to tell me that nobody had ever told her about her conduct before. At this point, I pulled out her personnel file, which contained evidence that she’d had issues with previous managers. 

I suggested she take time out, and we agreed to meet again after lunch to continue the conversation. 

When she came back, she was so much more relaxed. She said that she had probably been told about her conduct before, but it had obviously never registered with her. She accepted what I was saying and said she would change. 

In fact, she did more than change, and she became a real asset. 

One of her skills was communication, and we were bringing in a major change. I’d taken a week’s holiday, and when I came back, I found that she had got the other managers together and arranged a frequently asked questions spot so staff could ask the questions they wanted answers to. This lady became a real asset once she accepted that I had got the job role, and she just had to get on with me. 

The moral of this story is that there’s nothing wrong with admitting that sometimes people can get to you. It’s about how you navigate and get yourself out of that situation. 

Sometimes, having difficult conversations is not as easy as going into a room and working through a mental checklist, especially if the other person has a real bee in their bonnet. 

Speaking about someone with a bee in their bonnet, I once dealt with a very aggressive person. As you’ll know, if you’ve ever had to do it, it can be quite frightening to go into a conversation with someone like that. 

I took over managing this employee who was known for being aggressive, and she was upsetting everyone in meetings. I knew I had to tackle it, and I knew that I needed help to do this. 

I spoke to her previous manager, who admitted that she had been frightened of her, and I asked if she had any tips on managing the employee. 

She told me ‘before you engage with her, slow your breathing down so you’re calm and present, almost verging on mindfulness. This will stop your emotions running away with you.’

I took her tip into the meeting with this employee, and although I was dreading it, it went better than expected. I stayed calm, gave her the time to reply when I asked her a question and spoke about what she was like in meetings and how people were getting fed up with it. I told her I had noticed this- it was fact, not my opinion. 

We came to an agreement that if she was getting a bit much in meetings, I would put my hand up as a sign for her to pull back. She was very passionate, but she didn’t understand the effect it had on people until we had that conversation. 

The bottom line with difficult conversations is that, yes, you can learn some general tips for how to enter into them and conduct yourself, but you never know how they will go. 

It’s okay to get upset. 

It’s okay to worry about having a difficult conversation. 

It’s okay to go and get tips and advice from someone else to help you. 

It’s okay if it all goes pear-shaped because you learn from it. 

As managers, we all come across situations that we don’t want to handle, but we have to. 

People feel ashamed about the idea of getting upset at work; I’ve felt like that and wondered if I’m a rubbish manager because I felt like I couldn’t deal with something that I should have been able to deal with.

But I wasn’t a rubbish manager; I was human. And so are you. 

When tensions run high, and something has been bugging you for so long, there comes the point when it inevitably spills over. 

I’ve learned some other lessons about difficult conversations, too, and I want to share them with you. If you have any top tips, I’d love you to share them with me. 

The first lesson I’ve learned is to think before you speak (or write an email). Never respond when you are stressed, tired, or angry because it won’t end well. Take time out and reschedule the conversation, or send the email when you feel a bit more balanced. 

The second lesson focuses on solving issues with the other person, not blaming them for things. Playing the blame game can make the other person defensive, and you won’t be able to have a fruitful conversation with a good outcome. 

My third lesson is to make sure you accept and understand the other person’s perspective. Listen to them, and pause before you respond. 

The fourth lesson is asking what stories you are telling yourself before entering the conversation. Have you already decided that the person you need to have a difficult conversation with is rude, aggressive, and a bad person?

Stick to the facts, leave opinions and anything personal out of it. 

And finally, if in doubt, take a time out! 

If you’re having a difficult conversation and it’s going wrong, take a time out. There’s nothing wrong with taking a step back; it might give you and the other person time to calm down, gain some perspective, and start the conversation from a more reasonable place later.

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