Turn Tough Talk Into Constructive Dialogue

Although jobs today appear to be more secure than ever, with American layoffs and firings at a 20 year low, there’s always going to be the occasional difficult workplace conversation that needs to be had.

A difficult conversation can involve delivering bad news. Or discussing a sensitive “political” subject. More often than not, it’s about addressing situations of inappropriate employee behavior or poor performance.

In some instances, opinions are varied. Perceptions misaligned.
In most, emotions run high.

No one likes to have these kinds of conversations. But behaving like an ostrich and sticking your head in the sand to avoid confrontation can have painful consequences.

Unaddressed conflicts consume energy, destroy teamwork, impact productivity, turnover and morale. A major study found that employees spend an average of 2.8 hours a week dealing with conflict, which amounts to roughly $359 billion in workforce costs.

When problem people or situations are allowed to carry on and others have to pick up the slack or deal with a gnarly personality the overarching employee experience is at risk. Engagement surveys flag issues. Pulse surveys probe further and can help surface solutions. But ultimately the buck stops with people managers and their ability to intercede.

navigating challenging conversations in the workplace

Attentive management practices serve diagnostic and remedial purposes. Managers who hold regular one-on-one sessions and cultivate strong, collaborative relationships with their individual team members are more likely to pick up on or be told about negative behaviours or situations than those who keep a distant arm’s length. And the most attentive will don their coaching cap and circumvent problems before they fester and infect their finely-tuned teams.

Sure, it’s uncomfortable to have a hard conversation with someone you really like. But if you approach these difficult discussions with a twist of positivity, the outcome might surprise.

The secret is to be proactive and plan how to handle the situation, suggests Jean-Francois Manzoni, professor of human resources and organizational development at INSEAD “Try framing a difficult conversation in a positive way. For instance, rather than thinking you’re giving negative performance feedback, think of it as having a constructive conversation about development.”

The Internet is full of suggestions about how to tackle challenging conversations. Here’s a synthesize of the most common recommendations:

Prepare. Take a page from crisis management. This isn’t a conversation you want to have on the fly. Prepare for what you want to convey. Prepare for how the other person might react. Anticipate possible objections and questions and think of your responses. Prepare for bad reactions and steel yourself to be emotionally calm and professional. Think about your objective and the key problem to be addressed. What impact is this matter having on you, your team, the work?

Get to the point quickly. Challenging conversations become even more challenging when your delivery is jumbled. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and think about how you’d want to be approached. Consider using an opening statement something along the lines of: “I need to tell you something that might be difficult to hear.”

navigating challenging conversations - dialogue

Ask questions, listen, learn. Get the other person speaking early in the conversation to gain a broader understanding. If you aren’t sure of the other person’s viewpoint, acknowledge that you don’t know. Ask open-ended questions: What is it they think is the problem? Listen for accuracy and not assumptions.

Build bridges. Make it easier to cross into uncomfortable territory by emphasizing points of agreement and positive aspects. If you’re discussing an employee’s poor team performance, explain that to them and also talk about what it looks like when team relations are strong. Give the employee something solid to work towards. Illustrate what a positive outcome looks like.

Show empathy and compassion.  “Experience tells us that these kinds of conversations often lead to strained working relationships, which can be painful,” says Manzoni. It’s wise, therefore, to come at sensitive topics from a place of empathy.” You can do this by acknowledging their feelings and paraphrasing what they’re telling you. Let the employee know you’re genuinely listening.

Offer solutions or suggestions for improvement. Explore a way forward together and what you both want to happen differently in the future. Ask, “How do you see us resolving this?” Talk about solutions or suggestions for improvement. Just be sure to establish realistic goals.

Reflect and learn. After a difficult conversation, reflect on what went well, what didn’t and why. The key is to learn how to handle these discussions in a way that increases self-confidence and encourages an environment of positivity, a way that produces less pain for you, less pain for the person you’re talking with, and better outcomes for all.

For more information and unique insights about handling challenging conversations at work, check out what Joel Silverstone has to say. Silverstone, a DisruptHR keynote speaker who has 20 years of expertise in communications with Fortune 500 companies and hosts the TFR ‘This Feels Right’ podcast shares his novel approach with WorkTango about “How to influence others without being manipulative.”

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