Handling Difficult Conversations in the Workplace

Handling Difficult Conversations in the Workplace

Category - management

We all have an inner voice that tells us when we need to have a difficult conversation with someone—a conversation that, if it took place, would improve life at the office for ourselves and for everyone else on our team. But fear drowns that inner voice—and we put the conversation off. Meanwhile the offending individual continues to provide substandard performance, miss deadlines, engage in interpersonal conflicts and exhibit toxic behavior.

The consequence of not having that uncomfortable conversation is costly. A recent study of workplace conflict reveals that employees in the U.k. spend roughly 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict. Thirty-three percent of employees report that the conflict led to personal injury and attacks, and 22 percent report that it led to illness and absence from work. Ten percent report that project failure was a direct result of conflict.

A similar study in Canada showed that 32 percent of employees have to deal with conflict regularly. More alarming is a recent  study by Accenture revealing that, even in this challenging economic climate, 35 percent of employees leave their jobs voluntarily because of internal politics.

Handling the difficult conversation requires skill and empathy, but ultimately, it requires the courage to go ahead and do it. The more you get into the habit of facing these issues squarely, the more adept you will become at it. If you’re unsure of how to best approach a crucial conversation, here are some tips to guide you:

1. Be clear about the issue.

To prepare for the conversation, you need to ask yourself two important questions: “What exactly is the behaviour that is causing the problem?” and “What is the impact that the behaviour is having on you, the team or the organisation?” You need to reach clarity for yourself so you can articulate the issue in two or three succinct statements. If not, you risk going off on a tangent during the conversation. The lack of focus on the central issue will derail the conversation and sabotage your intentions.

2. Know your objective.

What do you want to accomplish with the conversation? What is the desired outcome? What are the non-negotiables? As English philosopher Theodore Zeldin put it: A successful conversation “doesn’t just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards.” What are the new cards that you want to have in your hands by the end of the conversation? Once you have determined this, plan how you will close the conversation. Don’t end without clearly expressed action items. What is the person agreeing to do? What support are you committed to provide? What obstacles might prevent these remedial actions from taking place? What do you both agree to do to overcome potential obstacles? Schedule a follow up to evaluate progress and definitively reach closure on the issue at hand.

3. Adopt a mindset of inquiry.

Spend a little time to reflect on your attitude toward the situation and the person involved. What are your preconceived notions about it? Your mindset will predetermine your reaction and interpretations of the other person’s responses, so it pays to approach such a conversation with the right mindset—which in this context is one of inquiry. A good doctor diagnoses a situation before reaching for his prescription pad. This applies equally to a leader. Be open to hear first what the other person has to say before reaching closure in your mind. Even if the evidence is so clear that there is no reason to beat around the bush, we still owe it to the person to let them tell their story. A good leader remains open and seeks a greater truth in any situation. The outcome of adopting this approach might surprise you.

4. Manage the emotions.

Most of us were likely raised to believe that emotions need to be left at the door. We now know that this is an old-school approach that is no longer valid in today’s work environments. It is your responsibility as a leader to understand and manage the emotions in the discussion. The late Robert Plutchik, professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, created a wheel of emotions to show that emotions follow a path. What starts as an annoyance, for example, can move to anger and, in extreme cases, escalate to rage. We can avoid this by being mindful of preserving the person’s dignity—and treating them with respect—even if we totally disagree with them.

5. Be comfortable with silence.

There will be moments in the conversation where a silence occurs. Don’t rush to fill it with words. Just as the pause between musical notes helps us appreciate the music, so the periodic silence in the conversation allows us to hear what was said and lets the message sink in. A pause also has a calming effect and can help us connect better. For example, if you are an extrovert, you’re likely uncomfortable with silence, as you’re used to thinking while you’re speaking. This can be perceived as steamrolling or overbearing, especially if the other party is an introvert. Introverts want to think before they speak. Stop talking and allow them their moment—it can lead to a better outcome.

6. Preserve the relationship.

A leader who has high emotional intelligence is always mindful to limit any collateral damage to a relationship. It takes years to build bridges with people and only minutes to blow them up. Think about how the conversation can fix the situation, without erecting an irreparable wall between you and the person.

7. Be consistent.

Ensure that your objective is fair and that you are using a consistent approach. For example, if the person thinks you have one set of rules for this person and a different set for another, you’ll be perceived as showing favouritism. Nothing erodes a relationship faster than perceived inequality. Employees have long-term memories of how you handled situations in the past. Aim for consistency in your leadership approach. We trust a leader who is consistent because we don’t have to second-guess where they stand on important issues such as culture, corporate values and acceptable behaviours.

8. Develop your conflict resolution skills.

Conflict is a natural part of human interaction. Managing conflict effectively is one of the vital skills of leadership. Have a few, proven phrases that can come in handy in crucial spots.
If you would like to learn more about conflict then join us at our next Conflict Management Course – See http://www.gettheedgeuk.co.uk/courses/managing-conflict-in-the-work-place/

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