How to Handle Difficult Conversations

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Difficult conversations frequently happen in the workplace. Some examples include letting an employee go, telling someone that they aren’t being promoted, or receiving a poor performance review. But despite their prevalence, these kinds of conversations don’t have to be feared or dreaded – rather, they can be handled in such a way that increases self-confidence and encourages an environment of positivity.

There are certain ways to handle difficult conversations that can create better outcomes for all. If a manager knows how to approach the issue, it is more likely to be resolved with both parties being satisfied.

Tips on Handling Difficult Conversations

The following are some ways you should behave in order to be able to navigate a tough conversation:

  • Prepare yourself. Mangers should be prepared to have the difficult conversation. They should know enough about their employee to determine how to bring up the problem.
  • Make sure you know what you want to achieve. The manager should have a goal of coming to a resolution, and they should know what they want to accomplish in the conversation.
  • Choose the right time and place. Don’t pick a busy part of the office or a day when the employee or manager is distracted by other work. Their full attention should be on the conversation.
  • Deliver the message promptly and clearly. Don’t beat around the bush – tell the person what they need to hear right away and be upfront with them.
  • Focus on the facts and tell the truth. Remain transparent and honest about the situation. Let them know that you are trying to help.
  • Ask questions. You should try to see the situation from the other person’s point of view and phrase your words accordingly so they are received better.
  • Listen accordingly. Managers should make sure they empathize, acknowledge, respect, and validate the other person’s feelings.
  • Don’t take people’s reactions personally. Sometimes hearing bad news is difficult. The reaction of the employee doesn’t reflect on the manager. Let them be upset if they need to be and give them a moment to collect themselves.
  • Stay calm and manage your own feelings. Don’t bring unnecessary opinions into the conversation. Stay on topic and focus on the best outcome.
  • Keep an open mind. Be willing to negotiate, when appropriate. Hear the employee out and objectively look at the situation to see if it could be solved in another way.

Stages of a Difficult Conversation

Difficult conversations generally follow a pattern. The details depend on the nature of the conversation, the manager’s objectives, and the situation at hand. Here are the stages of a difficult conversation and how you can navigate them:

  1. Prepare for the difficult conversation
    Difficult conversations nearly always go better when the manager takes the time to prepare. Preparing helps them feel less stress and tension and gets the message across clearly. Preparing for a difficult conversation requires careful thinking about questions like “What’s the situation?” “Do I have enough information to understand it fully?” “What are the facts?” “What are the stakes?”
  2. Initiate the conversation
    Initiate the conversation and try to keep it on track. Be empathetic – empathy helps develop the trust and understanding needed to make difficult conversations more productive and helpful to both parties.
  3. Deliver the message
    When delivering the message, be clear and specific, and focus on the facts. Give examples when possible. Be sincere, tell the truth, and provide accurate information. Ask questions if you need more information.
  4. Listen and respond
    Listen to what the employee is saying. Make eye contact, but don’t stare or appear menacing. Once they are finished, you can respond. Don’t talk over them or ignore their words.
  5. Explore alternatives and solutions
    Managers should make sure that they and the other person have the same understanding of the issue or problem. They should try to see the situation from the other person’s point of view and identify their interests, needs, concerns, positions, and objectives.
  6. Close the conversation
    Avoid letting the conversation drag out. Look for signs of a natural ending where the message has been delivered and received and the issue has been resolved or deemed unresolvable. Clarify next steps and actions that each can agree to take.
  7. Follow up
    Follow up with the employee about the conversation if needed. Try to ensure the resolution sticks. Remember that the ability to navigate difficult conversations doesn’t develop immediately. It takes attention and practice.

Learning More

Watch the HRDQ webinar titled Difficult Conversations: Embrace Confrontation and Produce Long-Lasting Results.  This webinar is based on research from Navigating Difficult Conversations Customizable Course, a training program from the HRDQ Reproducible Training Library that gives both newly emerging and experienced leaders and managers the tools and techniques for developing and refining their skills. Watch it here.

Navigating Difficult Conversations introduces participants to a seven-stage process for taking control in tricky situations and minimizing negative backlash to affect an environment of reduced stress, increased trust, improved relationships, and higher productivity. With realistic examples and role-playing activities, this program helps participants as they prepare, carry-out, and close difficult conversations in the most productive manner. It leads them to embrace confrontation and produces long-lasting benefits for both the employee and organization. Learn more here: Navigating Difficult Conversations Customizable course.

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