“Be aware of how your message is interpreted. Check that your communication has achieved the desired result and not been misinterpreted”

The worst thing to do when faced with a difficult or challenging conversation is to avoid it. How you respond or manage these conversations will determine whether a successful outcome is achieved or not.

Here are some helpful tips on handling more challenging conversations. They can be applied in any conversation, but, become all the more important as the conversations become more challenging.

  • Be clear from the beginning what you are here to talk about – don’t start the conversation with “so why do you think I’ve called you in here?” and try to get them to guess why they are there
  • Describe the situation from a neutral point, stay objective. Explain your views and how they were formed with specific examples
  • Once you have introduced the problem allow the other person to do most of the talking by inviting them to say what they think about the issue. “Tell me about the situation”. You should try to understand their perspective before jumping to conclusions
  • Acknowledge the importance of feelings — identify what the other person might be feeling and check this with them
  • Avoid inappropriate humour
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. Don’t feel the need to fill in silences with words. Sometime allowing silence will prompt the other person to say something they were hesitant to say. And sometimes when you feel tempted to fill the silence, you digress from the main point which not only dilutes your message but introduces distractions to the topic
  • Be aware of how your message is interpreted. Check that your communication has achieved the desired result and not been misinterpreted
  • Try to establish a common purpose. What will they get out of this discussion?
  • If the topic of discussion is a particularly sensitive or challenging one, ask for permission to discuss it first. E.g. “I need to ask you a hard question here…is that ok?”
  • Really listen. Don’t think about your next question while the person is answering your last question. You will miss vital information as you are not fully present, engaged on focused on what the person is saying
  • Build a collaborative environment through the words you use – “help me to understand…”, “how can we work through this together…”
  • Use the “why” question with caution as it can sound judgmental. Try to turn it into a “what” question. E.g. “what made you approach the situation in that way?” rather than “ why did you do that?”
  • Decide together what a mutually acceptable outcome would be and how to achieve it. For example, “what would be the best outcome here?”
  • Try to bring the focus on solutions rather than problems as this tries to move the discussion forward into action rather than dwelling on problems and the past for too long. Identify the what strengths they can draw on in solving the problem
  • Try to help the person arrive at the solution or strategy themselves as they will be more committed to carrying it out then if you had made the suggestion
  • Agree common ground and find a way to get to ‘yes’
  • Remain open to possibilities you may not have considered throughout the conversation
  • Steer clear of blaming and judging, although it may be difficult. Blaming or judging will only make the other person feel attacked and defensive. Also remember not to become defensive yourself
  • Be aware of your own biases – positive and negative, and make sure these are not impacting the discussion or interaction with your employee. These are often referred to as unconscious biases.

Note: Unconscious biases are the unconscious beliefs or values that you hold that impact your behaviours and decision-making in relation to other people. Unconscious bias can impact how you recruit and make hiring decisions, allocate development opportunities, make promotional decisions, review performance, and your daily interactions around the office. As these beliefs are unconscious, you often have little knowledge at the time that your behaviours are being influenced by them. This is what allows these biases to have a potentially negative impact on your actions. The greater your awareness of these hidden perceptions, preconceived ideas, the greater your ability to recognise and monitor the effect of these biases and then ultimately change these attitudes before they are expressed through your behaviour.

Some common difficult conversations

Here are some common scenarios you might encounter with some ideas on how best to deal with them.

Addressing under-performance for the first time with an employee

This can be challenging, particularly if the employee views their performance as successfully meeting requirements, has been identified as a high performer in the past, or when performance has not been addressed before.

Focus on the fact that it is better to communicate performance issues at the earliest opportunity as this provides the employee with the opportunity and support to make the necessary adjustments and avoid the situation becoming even more difficult

Try to investigate why there has been a recent change in performance and address the underlying issues.

The employee disagrees with the feedback

Focus your initial discussion on the “examples” of behaviour. If the person agrees that these occurred, discuss the effect of these behaviours from a personal perspective. It is difficult to debate someone’s feedback in the context of the effect of their actions on you

If the person doesn’t agree with the “examples” of behaviour, you need to be prepared to rethink your feedback. For example, is it specific or general? Is it being perceived as a personal attack?

The employee becomes emotional

Respond with empathy and demonstrate your concern for the individual but do not become emotional yourself.  Allow the individual time and space to consider the feedback and, if needed, schedule another time to continue the discussion.  Acknowledge your own contribution to their behaviour if this is appropriate (e.g. “I recognise that I have not previously given you feedback on this”; “I recognise that my instructions may not have been sufficiently clear”)

If you are expecting an emotional response, be particularly conscious of the location and timing that you chose to provide the feedback. Ensure that you prepare thoroughly and consider discussing your proposed approach and feedback with your own manager prior to providing the feedback.

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