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How to have a difficult conversation?

How does it make you feel when you have to tell someone bad news? Have you been in a professional situation where you’ve had to refuse a request that an individual has made, and you know they’re going to be upset with you?  Or maybe you’ve had to give a person some difficult feedback to address concerns around poor performance or inappropriate conduct. 

The idea of these ‘difficult’ conversations may fill us with dread as we may be unsure about whether we’re likely to end up with an upset employee or be dealing with confrontation.  This fear can make it tempting to ignore the problem and avoid the conversation, but the reality is that difficult conversations need to be had, and ignoring issues generally doesn’t make them go away.  In fact, most of us have or will have to handle a difficult conversation at some point and they can be managed more easily if we’ve prepared ourselves and have thought about how we’re going to manage the discussion.  In this blog, we’re going to look at some ways to make difficult conversations easier to have, and more likely to have a productive outcome.

Act promptly

Although we may not want to bring up a problem, it’s important to know when to talk to an individual about an issue.  The reality is that by talking about an issue quickly, we’re more likely to get a successful outcome.  If we’re delivering bad news, it’s better to inform the person so they know where they stand.  If we’re making another person aware of a problem with their work, we’re giving them a chance to alter how they’re acting.  We’re also ensuring that we set the right tone for that individual, for customers and for other employees so that everyone knows what acceptable behaviour/performance looks like for our organisation. 

Prepare well

When we’re planning the meeting, there’s various points we need to consider.  One of those is ensuring we get all the facts we need for the conversation.  If we’re delivering information, we need to know the details so we can answer questions.  If we have concerns about performance, we’ll need to know dates, times and details of what the performance issues are.  We should also consider the information in light of any relevant company policies and procedures in order to comply with any pre-existing documentation.  Dependant on the situation, it may be advisable to speak to a HR team or HR Consultant to ensure that we’ll be conducting the meeting in line with current legislation.

It’s important to make sure that we’ve organised the basic housekeeping for a meeting, for example, we will want to have the meeting in a private place where we’re less likely to be disturbed.  We need to block out enough time in the diary so that we’re don’t feel rushed, and we may want to consider whether a face-to-face meeting would be better than an online meeting.

We should also think about what we know about the person and how they like to be communicated with.  In one of our recent blogs, we discussed the benefits of Insights Profiling and these tools can help us to understand how we can communicate in a way that is most likely to be received well.  We can also contemplate how the meeting is likely to be perceived by the other person – are they likely to agree with what you want to say, are there areas of common ground or points of commendation that we can include in the meeting?

It may be useful to write a meeting plan which we can rely on while we’re in the discussion.  This may include opening information and in this information, we may want to agree the tone of the meeting and what behaviours are acceptable in the meeting.  A meeting plan will also allow us to plan any questions we want to ask and think about the points that need to be discussed.  Preparing this in advance will allow us to consider how we ask questions so that we have a range of open, closed, and probing questions.

During the meeting

When approaching a difficult conversation, try to be compassionate towards the other person, after all, we may not have wanted to have this conversation so they might not enjoy hearing what we have to say either!

If we’ve thought about their way of communicating and how they may feel as a result of the meeting, this is likely to come across in how we speak to them.  A really important way of showing that we’re interested in them is by listening to what they have to say.  Make sure you’re paying attention to them, and pause before responding so that you can consider what you’ve heard before you reply.  Care also needs to be given to our body language as it will give an indication of whether we’re interested, sympathetic, bored, irritated or anything else!

At points, despite our best endeavours, the situation may get heated.  If this happens, it’s a good idea to suggest an adjournment so that everyone has a chance to calm down.

After the meeting ends

When the meeting is finished, it’s good to reflect on what went well and what you might do differently in the future.  If it’s a meeting that may make you emotionally drained, allocate time in your diary to reset before your next appointment. However it all feels or whatever has happened, a follow-up discussion, meeting or check-in is a must.

How can ViewHR help?

The team at ViewHR can help in various ways, helping construct your conversation process with guidance through to training. Here are ways we’ve helped clients:

  • Acting as an intermediary and/or facilitating conversations;
  • Guidance on running conversations and aspects to cover;
  • Legal guidance on any associated risks from possible responses to the meetings;
  • Insights Colour Training workshops delivered to teams and individuals;
  • Training course on ‘handling difficult conversations’.

If you think we could help your business and situation, please get in touch.