Conducting Difficult Workplace Conversations

No matter what your role is in your organisation, at some stage you are likely to be in a position to have a difficult conversation with a manager, peer, client, customer or colleague.

iStock Difficult Conversations Conducting Difficult Workplace Conversations

Recently I asked a client who is struggling with a poorly performing member of his staff, why he hadn’t spoken to the person. He replied that he felt the situation would only lead to conflict and create a bad team atmosphere. Three months after this conversation with my client, the employee’s performance is unchanged and one of his best team members left the organisation frustrated because she believes my client is ignoring the problem.

What makes difficult workplace conversations like this so challenging?  If you are unsure how to conduct difficult workplace conversations, here are some tips to help you:

Choose an appropriate time and place to hold the conversation

Exercise care and consideration when planning the conversation.  Choose a quiet and private location and allow yourself enough time to engage in a productive conversation.  Approach the other party when they are likely to be receptive.  Picking a time when an employee is rushing out the door to pick up children owould not be an ideal time.  Think about how you’d like to start the conversation.  Your opening words are so important in setting the tone and feel of the conversation.

Clarify the issue  

Ask yourself what is the issue and the impact on you and the team?  If you are unclear about the issue and its impact, chances are the conversation will derail quickly.  Have you in any way contributed to the problem or situation?  For example, the manager who is avoiding talking to his staff member about her poor performance in order to avoid conflict is continuing to contribute to the problem. Until this manager has the conversation, the poor performing employee assumes her performance is acceptable.

Understand your emotions

Try to step back from the situation and put the situation in perspective.  Are you blowing the situation out of proportion?  Would others who know the person or situation well have a similar perspective? Do you know how the other party may be feeling about the situation? What do you want your tone of voice and body language to convey to ensure a constructive dialogue?

Be clear about your purpose in having the conversation

What do you want to achieve by having the conversation and what is your preferred outcome?  What are the key points you want to make and can you back them up with examples?  Once you have determined this, plan how you’d like to start and end the conversation.  Indicate up front your desire to work with the other party to resolve the issue.

Listen to understand the other party

Encourage the other party to share their point of view, emotions and perception of the issue.  Listen carefully and ask probing questions for full understanding. Acknowledge your and the other person’s feelings.  It is OK to let the other person know if you are frustrated or angry about an issue if it is handled in a constructive manner.  Remember to keep the conversation on track and not let it get hijacked by other matters or previous grievances.

End the conversation with an action plan

Develop options that reflect mutual concerns and interests.  Identify what is needed for you and the other party to be satisfied.  Be clear about ongoing communication and how you are both going to move forward given the options you have chosen together.

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