Conquering the fear of having ‘difficult conversations’

In working with various clients from different business sectors over the past month there has been a common theme they all are struggling with – how to manage that difficult situation and conversation that you know you need to have with an employee/co-worker/business partner.

You know that feeling, the pit in your stomach when you know that something is not going well and you have to intervene, and you hate the thought of ‘The Conversation’, so you postpone it, hoping it will go away. As we know, unfortunately, typically these problems do not go away. 9 times out of 10, your gut feeling that something isn’t going well, is correct, and if left unattended the issue will escalate and may eventually affect your business performance.

There are many fears that we have in addressing an issue with someone at work, most of them are based on our own personal discomfort in dealing with the situation, which may be due to a number of factors:- our own lack of experience/training, concern over legal implications, uncertainty on how to deal with personal issues that may be disclosed to you, uncertainty of how to manage the potential of emotional outbursts – anger or tears. If you know a person well, you may be concerned about the impact on your relationship, worried that you are impacting their career, life or family. All these things add a huge burden in terms of your ability to deal with an issue and manage a difficult conversation that needs to be held.

Whether you are addressing poor performance of an employee, making someone redundant, explaining there is a pay cut, dealing with an uncooperative co-worker or wanting to split ways with your business partner, they key to making these conversations productive is by developing open and honest relationships that inspire trust and create transparency

  1. Build the relationship: As soon as you start to work with someone, be it a new employee or co-worker, spending time getting to know the person individually is key. How they work, what’s important to them, what are their ‘hot buttons’, how you can help each other. Time spent building a relationship enables trust. When you have trust you gain mutual respect, and when you have to deal with an issue, both trust and respect are vital to having a successful outcome.
  2. Don’t surprise people – Become known for transparency: People are suspicious if they perceive information is not being shared with them, suspicion leads to mistrust. Trust is a pre-requisite for successful outcomes so the more you become known for being transparent with both ‘good and bad’ news, people will always know they can trust you to tell them the truth about things that can impact them.
  3. Having the difficult conversation is showing respect for the individual: No matter how bad you feel about having the difficult conversation, you have to look at it from a different angle. If it’s likely that someone will lose their job, they need to know as soon as possible so they understand the implications for their own circumstances and start to plan for that. If someone’s performance is deteriorating, then giving them a heads up that they need to get back on track is showing them respect and gives you an opportunity to help them before it starts to impact the business. If there may be layoffs, then sharing that, gives people time to plan. It is true that people may not like what you are telling them and will react to that, but you should be really clear – you are helping them by having the conversation openly and honestly, and even though it’s hard at the time, people will respect you afterwards for being candid.
  4. Highlight Choices and how you can help: People develop a victim mentality when they are forced into something they don’t want and feel they have no control over. Introducing the choices that people have in any circumstance gives them some sense of control over what is happening. For example in the case of a forced redundancy due to business closure:- yes it’s true, the fact that the company is closing is not in the control of the individual, but helping them to see beyond the redundancy; into what their skills could be best used for; to where there may be other job openings; by introducing them to someone that may need their skillset,  highlights that although big changes are about to happen, they do have options that they can pursue and you will help where you can.
  5. Be clear on expectations and consequences: Many times managers become frustrated because they believe they have already addressed a particular issue with an employee, and there is no improvement. Maybe several conversations actually have occurred where a manager brings up performance deficiencies. However unless there is clarity on exactly what is expected, and the consequences of not meeting those expectations, people don’t fully understand the urgency of the need to make a change. Being clear on expectations and consequences goes hand in hand with highlighting choices and offering help; – if performance is diminishing, explaining the impact of poor performance in business terms, sharing the urgency of the need for a change in performance and the likely outcomes for both the business and individual if something does not change, is key in helping people understand the seriousness of the situation. Discussing potential causes of diminishing performance and offering people choices so that they have ownership and control is empowering, even in a tough situation – appropriate choices may be a rotation to a role more suited to their skills, maybe their personal circumstances have changed and they would prefer a less stressful/demanding role, helping them work through a detailed performance improvement plan over a specific period time and outlining what will happen if they do not meet the goals within the timeframe of the improvement plan. Drive for specificity and clarity in all your conversations, everyone then knows exactly where they stand and misunderstandings are minimised.

Given what we know about ourselves, there will always be situations that we feel uncomfortable about, conversations we wish we didn’t need to have. However we can minimise these fears if we proactively work towards developing relationships based on trust, creating clear expectations and consequences, highlighting the choices and showing the right balance of empathy in helping people make the most of the choices they make.

Add comment


No comments yet.