Doing the Tough Stuff #2
“A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.”
In the second of our “Tough Stuff” series, we look at how to have ‘difficult conversations’ with your team in the workplace.
We all have to have difficult conversations at some point in our careers, whether it’s providing feedback on poor performance, telling a team member they aren’t getting a pay rise or a promotion, or managing inappropriate behaviour. In fact, research in the UK from the Chartered Management Institute reveals that more than half of workers (51%) deal with a difficult conversation at work at least once a month or more.
Whilst tough conversations at work are inevitable and happen regularly, no-one relishes the thought of having to deal with them. After all, it’s natural to try to avoid conflict, but at times, as a manager, it’s a crucial part of the job and something that helps both us and our teams to develop and grow.
The benefits of not avoiding or delaying difficult conversations seriously outweigh the potentially negative outcomes. While it may not feel easy or natural at first, with practice and persistence, you can learn to approach these tough talks with confidence, knowing you, and hopefully others, will only grow better because of them.
So here’s our top 10 tips for taking your leadership skills to the next level and making these difficult conversations as painless, and productive as possible.
10 Tips for Handling Difficult Conversations
1. Is this my problem?
The first thing you should ask yourself is: “Is this my problem?” Most problems to do with performance, conduct, absence or personal issues are often the responsibility of the line manager, but this is not always the case. There will be times when it’s best if a more senior manager or Human Resources specialist talks to an employee first.
If it’s more than a “quick chat”, and there’s the potential for disciplinary action, you may need follow company procedure and have a witness present anyway.
The key thing is to work through the best way to get the desired outcome for the person involved, and for you not to complicate matters further.
2. Be direct
Always be direct and get to the point quickly. This is not the time for long winded introductions, as they can just confuse the message. A lot of the time, the person you’re talking to knows that something is coming anyway, so rather than dancing around the subject, just get to it.
3. Be specific
Clarify why you’re having the conversation, and be clear if it’s a “quick chat”, or something more formal. Be honest and thorough with your feedback, and use appropriate, clear cut examples to support your comments. The more evidence or examples you can provide, the more you are likely to reduce the resistance to your points and begin the process of changing things. What you don’t want is the discussion to conclude that different people have different views, so no change is needed.
4. Plan the conversation
Try to control and manage the conversation by thinking through and planning what you’re going to say, as well as anticipating how the other person might react. Think of the questions they might ask and have answers prepared. The more prepared you are, the easier it will be to stay calm and not get flustered, and therefore deliver more robust feedback.
5. Mind your language
The actual words you use during the conversation matter. It’s important to set a positive tone going into your meeting. If you have a negative approach, your employees are more likely to get defensive and argumentative. You ideally want a calm, well-reasoned discussion, so avoid language that could create another issue.
Every situation is different. Put yourself in their shoes. How would you like news delivered to you?
6. Offer a solution
The goal of the discussion is to create a positive change, and not just tell them what they are doing wrong. Give the person examples of positive things they can do to improve and see if you can get them to add their own ideas.
Are there tools and resources you can provide to help them improve, so it becomes a shared responsibility? Work collaboratively together on the solution.
Illustrating what a positive outcome looks like gives the person something solid to work towards and helps them understand why they’re having the conversation in the first place.
7. Control your emotions
You want to have the conversation in a calm tone and keep it professional. Don’t let your emotions dictate your delivery, because if you get emotional, so will the other person. Try to look at things from a fact based standpoint and focus solely on that.
When emotions start to take over, remind yourself that the more in control you are of your emotions, the better you’ll be able to deliver the message.
8. Show empathy
You are probably about to deliver a tough message that may be difficult to hear. Think of how the other person will feel during the conversation and give them time to process their emotions. Take your time, and briefly pause after the key message (this also helps to reinforce the key message).
Clearly explain why you’re having the conversation to help them fully understand where you’re coming from and relate this back to the facts. If they’re really taking the news poorly, remind them that you’re having this conversation to try to help them improve, as you want to see them succeed.
If you see they’re really struggling with what you’ve said, give them time to collect their thoughts. You may need to take a short break, or even reschedule.
9. Allow the other person to ask questions.
Questions serve a double purpose. Asking questions helps the other person process what’s happened, and it allows you to clarify and solidify details of the conversation. Also, if you aren’t sure that the other person fully comprehended the conversation, check their understanding by asking some clarifying questions.
10. Loop back to review the situation
Lastly, once you’ve had the initial conversation, get back into your “Feedback” mode, that we covered in our first Tough Stuff blog ‘The Art of Feedback’.
Catch up with them for an informal, brief discussion, looking back over what they’ve achieved or reiterating your support. This will demonstrate you are there to continue to support the employee even after the initial problem was solved.
There’s always complexities and challenges in the workplace that companies expect their leaders to manage to create a better future. Next time you have to have a difficult conversation, keep these points in mind to ensure that it’s productive and well received, and moves things forward.
And no hiding!
Next time, we’ll look at how to manage those presentation nerves, and get the most out of them.