5 Guiding Principles for Conducting Difficult Conversations

There are some work conversations that many people dread. Speaking with a colleague about  performance concerns, a complaint against them, inappropriate behaviour or redundancy can be confronting and challenging.

At Worklogic, we see many workers’ compensation claims, employee complaints and allegations of breach of workplace policy that flow from either a one-off, or series of difficult conversations that have been conducted poorly.

Where things can go wrong

Does any of this sound familiar in your workplace?

  • A performance supervisor who hates any discussion which feels like ‘conflict’. The supervisor rushes through a performance development meeting, criticises the employee’s performance, does not give the employee an opportunity to respond and fails to outline a structure to assist the employee to improve.
  • The employee takes stress leave and makes a WorkCover claim for bullying.
  • A team leader runs the team like a fiefdom, encourages backstabbing, refuses to collaborate across functions and hires people who do not challenge authority. No-one at the business feels willing to discuss the team leader’s management style; after all, the team’s sales are good. However, no ethical or self-respecting employee in the team stays around for long, and the turnover and recruitment costs are getting out of control.
  • A leading hand feels that everything a colleague says is an implied criticism. The personality clash that develops as a consequence means they are struggling to work constructively together. Toolbox meetings are becoming dysfunctional as others pick up on the tension, meaning that OH&S and handover are not being properly covered.
  • A manager becomes so frustrated with an employee’s long-standing incompetence that a conversation between them about sales results turns into a free-for-all, in which she ‘invites’ the employee to resign. Three months later, the company is settling a costly unfair dismissal claim because there is no record of any prior performance management.

The reality is that difficult conversations are inevitable in the workplace, and it is important that they are conducted well.

5 Guiding Principles

Here are there are some basic principles which, when applied carefully, can turn a risky situation into a development opportunity for both parties.

1. Be Proactive

Delaying difficult conversations can escalate a situation, increase the stakes, and lead to a build up of emotion over time. In our experience, ignoring a misbehaving or under-performing employee will never result in an improvement in performance. It is more likely the supervisor will become increasingly frustrated until an ill-prepared blow-up occurs in the heat of the moment. To avoid long-term problems and heated exchanges, be proactive and raise concerns as they occur to minimise the potential fallout.

Think carefully about having the conversation by email, unless there is a particularly compelling reason as to why you would need to document everything in writing. Emails are impersonal and too easy to misinterpret. It is far too easy to fire off an email containing comments that you would never say to the person’s face. If you anticipate that the conversation is going to be difficult, the subject matter is sufficiently important to discuss in person.

2. Be Prepared

Before you meet together, prepare the conversation. Decide on your objective – such as improve a relationship, resolve a problem or provoke learning – and think about the best way to achieve it.

Have all the relevant information available to you.

Consider carefully, before you meet with the staff member, what the issue is, how it can be rectified and what the next step in the process is. Be as specific as you can and avoid generalities. If possible, write a script for yourself, setting out the behaviour you want to address. Use specific examples of the problem at hand. Indicate that you want to resolve the issue, and invite the other person to explain their perspective. Think about what language you will use. For example, “I want to talk with you about your interaction with customers” gives a very different impression to “I need to talk to you about the way you intimidate customers into sales”. Focus on the problem, not the person.

Give the other person a real opportunity to explain their perspective. You may want to keep them talking with open-ended questions like “That’s interesting. Why do you say that?”, and “What do you think needs to happen next?”. They may well come up with the way to resolve the issue.

In advance, consider the different ways in which the staff member may respond to what you plan to say. If you anticipate that the person may become angry or upset, consider how you might respond. For example, you may decide to have information about an employee assistance program at your disposal, or you may need to contact security. There may also be circumstances where having another person present will be beneficial to one or both of you, such as a support person or a witness.

3. Be Honest and Fair

Don’t disguise the real reason you are meeting, understate the importance of the issue or avoid the truth. We have seen too many performance reviews in which the supervisor intended to give a warning about failure to improve, and the staff member came out of the same meeting feeling happy and affirmed.

Give the staff member the time to consider what you have said and the opportunity to give their perspective. It may be that they need some time to reflect before they are in a position to respond constructively. Listening to what the staff member has to say is a fundamental, but often overlooked part of any exchange.

4. Be Empathetic

If you can, consider the ideal time or location for the conversation. Some employees would prefer to be able to leave work for the day immediately following the conversation while others would prefer to have the conversation at the start of the day so they can get it over with. In terms of location, it may be that having the conversation at a neutral location is necessary to avoid interruption or observation.

Be aware that what you are saying is not only difficult to say but difficult to hear. No matter what words you are using, what the other person actually hears and what they take away from the conversation will be affected by their past experiences, personality, culture, attitudes, fears, anxieties, emotional intelligence and assumptions. Choose your words carefully and be mindful of your tone, as well as your body language and other non-verbal communication. Focus on the behaviour or actions of the staff member and avoid unnecessary criticism of the person.

Also think about your own emotional reactions. Your feelings can be informative of what matters to you in this situation. Know your triggers, and the limits of your role and responsibility. Deliberately decide to demonstrate detached concern during the meeting and if you get overwhelmed, take a break.

5. Be Prudent

Carefully document what is said and by whom, what the issues are, and any agreed outcomes during the conversation. Written confirmation shortly after the event – either in a private file note or an email to the other person confirming your understanding of the discussion – is also important. It can avoid confusion or misunderstanding, and will ensure that later you have a record of the conversation if the matter does not resolve.

As we all know from our personal lives, sometimes a difficult conversation – when handled with care – can leave the participants with a better understanding of each other’s perspective and a greater clarity about expectations. With preparation, a preparedness to listen, honesty and respect, a difficult conversation can become a constructive interaction for which everyone is grateful.