6 Steps for Managing Difficult Conversations

A critical difference between average and great workplace performance lies in how people handle difficult conversations. When we choose to say nothing rather than speak up, it causes employee engagement and retention figures to drop, projects to fall behind and teams to work in silos rather than collaboratively. We create a culture of silence.

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Unfortunately, we fail to consider the cost of not dealing with the issue promptly and directly. By choosing silence, we waste significant time and resources, damage relationships and increase stress by working around our problems.

For example, when most managers are facing a challenge with a member of their team, they will call upon HR to seek a resolution or ‘wait and see’ if the issue will fix itself, rather than hold what we refer to as a crucial conversation – where it’s high stakes, there is a difference of opinion and strong emotions.

In the eyes of their team, this inaction can make the manager appear weak, but it also has other damaging implications as silence can also be seen as acceptance. When managers don’t challenge colleagues who underperform or misbehave, others start to question ‘Why should I work hard while they get away with not performing?’ This sense of unfairness and frustration can then damage more than just one relationship in the team.

When it’s peer to peer or involves speaking up to a more senior figure, many of us will feel helpless and internalise our concern, have an argument with the other person in our head or talk to everyone except the right person about the issue.

Regardless of our job status, the primary reason we all avoid holding crucial conversations is a fear of conflict. We tell ourselves self-justifying stories such as speaking up will only make matters worse, the other person will respond negatively or it won’t make any difference.

Where does this anxiety come from? In most cases, it’s previous experience. At some time in the past, we’ve all probably been burned by trying to hold a crucial conversation that didn’t go as well as we’d hoped. Here are some reasons we may not have performed at our best in the past:

  • Trying to 'win' the conversation by being right or put them in their place rather than create a dialogue
  • Sharing stories, thoughts and opinions rather than facts about what has been observed
  • Responding with hyperbole and loaded language rather than tentatively expressing concerns
  • Focusing on the wrong issue without considering what we really want for ourselves and the relationship
  • Thinking of ourselves as victims and the other person as a villain

However, crucial conversations don’t have to result in conflict. By changing our approach it is possible to remain in dialogue when the stakes are high or there is a difference of opinion. Here are six steps for holding a crucial conversation in the workplace:

  1. Get your mind set right – Before you even start the conversation, you need to identify where you’re stuck. Make sure you focus on the right issue by considering the following: What is the outcome you want from the conversation for yourself, for the relationship and, potentially, for the team/organisation?
  2. Make it safe – The first 30 seconds are likely to determine the outcome of your conversation. Create an environment where both of you feel comfortable to discuss the issue openly and honestly without feeling under attack.
  3. Share concerns in a non-threatening way – Avoid controversy by leading with observations and facts rather than your interpretation of what you observed. Then, tentatively share your feelings, thoughts and assumptions.
  4. Ask for their input – Ask the other person if they have a different view to you. The only limit to how strongly you express your own opinion should be your willingness to equally encourage others to challenge it.
  5. Work towards a mutual purpose –You don’t have to be best friends with someone to respect them and work together towards a common goal. Think back to step one, you may need to share with them what you want for the relationship to build a mutual purpose and create new strategies to achieve it.
  6. Decide a plan of action – How you end the conversation is just as important as how you start. Without deciding on the next steps, the conversation becomes meaningless. What will change as a result of speaking directly to your colleague about the problem?

At the heart of all workplace challenges are conversations that are either not being handled or not being handled well. To do so requires both the skill and confidence to challenge our colleagues. These six steps can help you or others in your organisation to discuss high stakes, emotionally sensitive topics even when there is a difference of opinion. Through a culture of dialogue, you’ll be able to improve relationships and business results.

If you would like to learn more about how to hold crucial conversations effectively and change the culture of your organisation, join us for a complimentary executive briefing introducing the two-day Crucial Conversations training programme at Holiday Inn Bloomsbury, London on Thursday 25th February. Click here for more details.

Grahame Robb Associates Ltd (GRA) are the exclusive UK and Republic of Ireland licensee for the award-winning training programme Crucial Conversations.

How to resolve workplace conflict

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