Master Difficult Conversations

One of the ironies of our technologically connected world is that people have great difficulty communicating with each other face-to-face. Managers who have to approach situations with political correctness or deal with thin-skinned coworkers or subordinates sometimes find it difficult to be candid without crossing the line.

Do some planning before having that heart-to-heart conversation with an employee. © Can Stock Photo Inc. – AndreyPopov

It takes effort to be direct while being tactful, to be crisp without being rude. However, it is a key management skill and a critical success factor that will serve you well throughout your career.

Part of the skill is knowing when and how to have conversations on sensitive subjects.

Although sometimes heart-to-heart conversations require you to be honest, one should know that these are delicate and difficult conversations. Within the workplace, topics may range from how an employee’s personal life is affecting performance to how an employee is alienating other people with an aggressive attitude, etc.

Most of the time, these conversations are initiated by you–the manager–and are designed to effect some change on the part of the other party–your employee. In doing so, you need to show a level of conversational maturity that accomplishes the objectives while minimizing conflict.

And make no mistake–the potential for conflict is very high in these situations. The personal nature of the topics discussed can generate a range of negative emotions in employees that can escalate to resentment, formal litigation, or even workplace violence.

The reality is that few managers are properly trained to handle the emotional and psychological aspects of these conversations. Unfortunately, management-training programs provide minimal instruction on controlling the emotional facets of performance improvement, behavior change, or disciplinary meetings.

Timing is the key. You begin these stressful conversations with an employee at a point when you can no longer tolerate the behavior. In some cases, you want the person to change an attitude overnight, or leave!

Instead of addressing an issue when it is first identified, some managers may choose to ignore it in the hope that it is a one-time event, or to avoid the discomfort of addressing it. In waiting until the situation must be addressed, you may be so frustrated with the behavior that you merely want the issue to stop and the employee to go away.

If you do not want things to escalate to that point, here are some tips on how to have a delicate conversation and reap the benefits:

1.) Before being frank with an employee, try to be frank with yourself! Approaching a difficult conversation will require you–the manager–to truly want the employee to change the behavior and continue employment. You also must have the courage (heart) to admit to errors, fearlessly confront the employee’s behavior or performance shortcomings, as well as your contribution or lack of it, to the situation. And remember: The sincerity of your motives will play a major role in the employee’s commitment to change. Lack of sincerity on your part will result in a fight/flight/freeze reaction. When this is activated, an employee will find it very difficult to think rationally.

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