Although they may be daunting, difficult conversations are part and parcel of any manager or leader’s job. While these conversations can be challenging, you can take steps to make them easier. Here we outline five key ‘dos’ and five important ‘don’ts’ for tackling tricky conversations.
1. Do… choose a suitable time and place
Whatever the nature of your difficult conversation, you should book a privateroom where you won’t be interrupted. Ensure you allow sufficient time to explore both sides of the issue. Give thought to the most appropriate time to hold the meeting (e.g. don’t schedule the meeting when someone is about to go off on holiday or before another important meeting). And be sure to give the other person advance notice.
2. Do… state your intent up front
Use your opening sentences to outline what exactly you want to talk about. Include why the conversation has to happen and what you’d like to see as an outcome (if appropriate). This should help focus the conversation, and allow you to steer it back on track if need be. If you are new to having this kind of conversation, it can be helpful to jot down what you want to say in advance, rather than winging it on the day. You could also seek the advice of a trusted colleague or mentor. Talk through the conversation you want to have with them (in confidence) before you do it for real.
3. Do… gather evidence and stick to the facts
When conducting a difficult conversation, you should always rely on factual information and direct observations. Use the information you have gathered to refer to examples (e.g. of specific behaviours or actions) to back up what you’re saying, whenever possible.
4. Do… keep the lines of communication open
Depending on the issue(s) you’re trying to resolve, you may need to follow your organisation’s internal HR procedures. However, before you make the decision to do this, it’s important to talk to the person informally at first. Give them an opportunity to explain things if need be, and state their side of the story. Try not to make any snap judgements or decisions before hearing from those involved. In some cases, you may find that there are circumstances which explain what happened, and of which you had no prior knowledge.
5. Do… be clear about next steps
In your conversation, state clearly what should ideally happen next. Where appropriate, give likely consequences if things don’t improve. For example, if informal discussions don’t have the desired impact within an appropriate timescale, you may need to involve HR, and move towards more formalised procedures. You should make this (and any other possible consequences) clear as part of your informal discussions.
1. Don’t… procrastinate
Resist the temptation to bury your head in the sand and hope that the need to have a difficult conversation will just go away. Chances are, the root cause of a difficult conversation will remain, and a lack of action on your part can make things worse. You also risk losing the respect and trust of your team if you don’t deal with issues which affect them.
2. Don’t… start sentences with ‘you’
For example, ‘you are always late’ or ‘you never meet deadlines’ sounds like you are on the attack. This will most likely make the person you’re speaking to defensive, and is not conducive to a productive conversation. Instead, point out that the behaviour, rather than the person, is causing a problem. For example, you could say ‘the missed deadlines have a serious impact on our reputation’ rather than ‘you never meet deadlines’. You could also use ‘we’ in place of ‘you’; for example, ‘we need to talk about why the deadline was missed’.
3. Don’t… make assumptions or jump to conclusions
If your difficult conversation is to address problem behaviour, remember that there may be mitigating circumstances that could go some way to explaining the negative behaviour, for example illness, stress or other factors, both inside and outside the workplace. Use active listening to try to draw these factors out, while being respectful to your team member at all times.
4. Don’t… let your emotions get in the way
Difficult conversations can often cover sensitive topics, and it’s only natural that people can get emotional. Be prepared for this, and try to keep your own emotions in check. Aim to stay focused and objective. Concentrate on the facts and things you’ve observed directly, rather than hearsay or personal opinion. If you do find yourself being drawn in on an emotional level, take a break if you can. Give yourself (and the other person) some space before returning to discuss the issues with a clear head.
5. Don’t… be afraid
Finally, if your informal conversations aren’t having the desired effect, don’t be afraid to move things on. You may need to explore more formal measures, such as disciplinary action or implementation of your organisation’s capability procedure. If this is the case, you may wish to speak to your own manager, or take advice from your organisation’s HR department (if you have one).