How to navigate difficult conversations

If you’re in a position of leadership, chances are you have experienced navigating a difficult conversation with a colleague, direct report, or with a client. Perhaps you had to discipline an employee, or let someone go from your company. Maybe you had to tell your client that the project will not be completed on time.

As a team member, you may have been on the receiving end of a difficult conversation. Can you think of a time when the communication between you and a colleague went wrong? For example, you missed a deadline and your boss yelled at you. Your client ended a call abruptly when they heard the news of the project being delayed.

Impact of conversations gone wrong

When not handled properly, conversations gone wrong can create tension and stress in the workplace. It doesn’t matter if you are on the receiving end, or delivering the bad news yourself. In the aftermath, the tense energy of those involved can be felt by others in the workplace. If not dealt with, a negative atmosphere can impact team morale and productivity.

There are things you can do before, during, and after the conversation to facilitate a positive outcome for everyone involved.

Prepare yourself

Let’s say you have scheduled a meeting with your employee to discuss their performance. You’ve observed that their behaviour has not been positive over the past few weeks and it’s impacting the team.

Mentally prepare yourself for a positive outcome.

Be aware of your intent before you enter the meeting. Ask yourself what assumptions you already have about this person. Why do you feel this conversation will be difficult for you? Has the employee pushed some of your buttons?

Taking ownership of and understanding your emotions before you have the conversation will help you to better understand yourself and your motivations. It will also help you to keep your emotions in check and to maintain an objective point of view during the meeting.

You can mentally prepare yourself by taking a calm approach. Give yourself time to arrive at the meeting, i.e. don’t rush from another meeting. Take a few deep breaths to centre yourself. Deep breathing will help to diffuse any nervous energy you have leading up to the conversation. Often we anticipate the challenge and make the idea of the difficult conversation much worse in our mind than it needs to be.

Be empathic

During the meeting, approach your employee with an attitude of empathy and inquiry, rather than jumping to conclusions, or needing to blame or reprimand. Instead of assuming the person is lazy or doesn’t care about their job, ask open ended questions about how they perceive the situation.

It’s possible they are unaware that their actions are impacting others. It’s possible they have something going on in their personal life that is affecting their performance at work. Put yourself in their shoes and try to understand their point of view. Listen to what they have to say. If you have contributed to the problem in some way, then acknowledge your role in the issue.

When you approach a difficult conversation with empathy, it creates an environment of trust and the person is more likely to open up and communicate with honesty when they feel supported.

Remain calm

During the meeting, the conversation will go more smoothly when both parties involved remain calm. Pay attention to your body language and subtle cues, and those of the other person. For example, are you sitting with your arms crossed and do you feel tense in certain parts of your body? Perhaps your heart is racing or your stomach feels tight.

Adjust your body language or notice where in your body you are feeling tension as the conversation progresses. Do your best to keep your emotions in check by pausing and taking a deep breath, instead of reacting, when something has upset you. It’s ok to pause and reset during a difficult conversation, rather than fill the time with constant chatter.

Reflect and follow up

As you are wrapping up the meeting, try to reframe the topic in a positive light. For example, the reason a particular problem has surfaced has presented both of you with an opportunity for improvement and growth.

Clarify expectations moving forward. Ask your colleague if there are any open questions remaining, or if they have feedback. When appropriate, set another meeting to evaluate and follow up.

After the meeting, take some time to personally reflect on what went well and what you could have done differently. Self-reflection will help you when you need to navigate another difficult conversation in the future.

 

Each of us has a different style of communication. You may prefer to face conflict head on, or you might try to avoid it at all costs. No matter what your style of communication, or position in the workplace, navigating a difficult topic of conversation doesn’t have to be difficult if you follow the tips above. When you prepare yourself, it helps you to remain calm in any situation and leads to a positive outcome for everyone involved.

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