8 Simple Ways To Handle Difficult Conversations in the Workplace

8 Simple Ways To Handle Difficult Conversations in the Workplace

Nobody enjoys a ‘difficult conversation at work, particularly when it’s with an employee that you want to retain, or a colleague you have a good personal relationship with. It’s often nearly as hard on the giver as the receiver, causing much angst and even sleepless nights in the lead up to the meeting. 

However, there are specific proven strategies that when used can make this easier on yourself, as well as the person on the receiving end.  


1. Stop Labelling It A ‘Difficult’ Conversation. 

How do you know this conversation is going to be difficult? Because you keep telling yourself so. By the time you get into the meeting you’re coiled tight as a spring and you’re unnaturally awkward.  
The employee immediately registers that something is wrong, and tenses up themselves as if preparing for battle, resulting in stress hormones flooding their body. Not a great start—and all without saying a word!  

Until you get in there, you don’t know how the person is going to receive your news. Who knows, the person you’re having to let go might have been wanting to resign anyway, or you might find out that the reason they’re struggling is because of a personal issue.  
You can’t possibly know how the conversation will go before it happens, so stop worrying about the possible reaction and concentrate on what it is you have to say. That is all you can do at this stage. 


2. Time Your Meeting Strategically 

The longer someone has to think about something, the bigger it tends to become in the mind.  
The same goes for meetings, so don’t tell someone you want to talk to them about their productivity, and then schedule the meeting for 3 days’ time. That creates a whole lot of thinking time (that is unlikely to lead to increased productivity!)  

There are other ways to minimise the emotional impact of meetings that you expect to be fraught.  
One technique is to schedule a meeting in the late afternoon so that the person can go straight home afterwards rather than sitting at their desk all day fuming and trying to stir up ill feeling 
amongst their colleagues.   


3. Be Calm  

Learning to insert moments of calm into your day at will is a skill that will pay dividends throughout your life, not just on days where you’re facing a tricky meeting.  
When you feel your stress response rising and your breath becoming shallow, that’s a sign that your nervous system has sprung into ‘fight or flight mode’, where it is extremely difficult to think clearly and emotions can run out of check.  
Luckily, you can force your nervous system back into the parasympathetic system, or ‘rest and digest’ system, by following the 4-7-8 breathing pattern for 2 minutes.  


4. Pause  

During the meeting, force yourself to pause before responding. Austrian neurologist Viktor E Frankl once said, ‘Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.  
Remembering this can give you a real sense of control when the meeting threatens to become emotionally charged.


5. Don’t Get Carried Away 

If you list everything this person has ever done wrong since they joined the company (in the hope that they’ll see the error of their ways), all you’ll do is engender a feeling of victimisation. 
If you go too far back, you’ll actually undermine the power of your own argument, as they’ll often think the fact you had to drag up old mistakes indicates that you don’t have a strong case in the present.  
Pick one or two problematic behaviours, with concrete examples, and explain why the behaviour isn’t inline
 with company expectations. 


6. Let Them Respond and Listen   

There is nothing more frustrating for an employee than feeling their side of the story is not being heard. Or perhaps even worse, that you give them an opportunity to speak and explain the situation, but that information is not taken on board! 
This often happens when a manager has ‘scripted’ their remarks earlier and can’t seem to deviate from them, or when there’s an existing personal issue between manager and employee. Instead, ask for their response and listen carefully. When they finish, recap their perspective so they feel they have been heard, and then move on to the solution you propose.  


7. Look For Overlap Between Your Viewpoints. 

There’s often room somewhere in the middle where your aims overlap. Yes, even in disciplinary meetings! Keep your ears attuned for where the person shows that they feel like they’re being hard- done by.  

For example, if an angry, hurt employee says, ‘I did really well on that last project and brought in a huge client, but everyone seems to have forgotten that now.’ This is your opportunity to answer along the lines of ‘Yes you did do exceptionally well at that. I was really impressed and I definitely haven’t forgotten your performance. What can I do to help you get results like that with the current project too?’  


8. Propose a Solution, Not Only Problems. 

No matter what you’ve brought them in to talk about, always have a solution that you’re working towards.  
Once you’ve given the person a chance to respond to the feedback and shown that you’ve listened, move on to what your suggestions are for improvement or resolution. Be very wary of any tendency in yourself to not to want to find a solution- perhaps you just want to tell them off because you find them frustrating.  
Don’t go into the meeting until you’ve clarified the positive solutions you’re seeking from it.  

It’s common to dread these kinds of conversations, but it’s also pointless. You cannot know how the person will react, all you can do is prepare yourself calmly and carefully for the meeting so that you can best manage the situation towards a positive outcome. 
It’s not the first tough conversation you’ll have as a manager, and it certainly won’t be the last. So why not learn to do it better.


About First2Recruit

First2Recruit, are an owner managed recruitment consultancy providing a full recruitment service including; permanent and FTC positions in Accountancy Practice and Insolvency across the UK.

Alternatively, visit www.first2recruit.co.uk or call one of their friendly team on 01722 440 168.