How do you deal with difficult conversations at work, asks Louise Rodgers

Louise Rodgers crop 2

How do you deal with difficult conversations at work? Perhaps you need to tell a member of your team that they aren’t pulling their weight, or a client that you need extra time and/or budget? It’s possible that you even have to terminate someone’s employment.

These conversations can be difficult for everyone involved. They can bring out the coward in us, so that we put them off for as long as possible. And because we expect that, at the very least, things are going to be awkward if not fully confrontational, our defence mechanisms are primed to spring into action at the slightest provocation.

Many tough conversations are taking place remotely right now. Are they harder, or easier, in the virtual world? I suspect there is no universal answer to this question because, just like in real life, a conversation, even a tough conversation, is an interaction between two individuals who are walking into the room, virtual or otherwise, with their own set of expectations and assumptions.

When communication norms are being challenged, it’s even more important that leaders approach the conversation with a cool head and focus on making even the most difficult of conversations as healthy as possible. Here are some of the ways we can do that.

First of all, bite the bullet and have the conversation. One of the most common ways we deal with anxiety is avoidance. Let’s take as an example having t a performance related chat with a direct report. As the leader in the situation, it is even more important that you stop trying to dodge it. There are two potential outcomes of doing this. One is that you will just snap with frustration and annoyance, the other is that the window of opportunity passes, the conversation never takes place and the situation is never really ‘fixed’. Either way trust, and therefore the relationship, is damaged.

Secondly, prepare for the conversation. You can ask yourself some questions to help you do this. What assumptions are you making about this conversation (for example, that it is going to be difficult!), and what are those assumptions based on? What do you want the outcome of the conversation to be? What is the benefit of this conversation to you, and to the other person? Imagine someone else you respect, perhaps a role model, having this conversation instead of you. How do you think they would approach it? List all the things you can think of that might help to make the conversation successful.

Thirdly, remember that, as Brene Brown, says “Clear is kind.” When we avoid clarity, we convince ourselves that we are being kind, but what we are actually doing is being unfair, and unkind. As Brown says: “Not being clear with a colleague about your expectations because it feels too hard yet holding them accountable or blaming them for not delivering is unkind.” I’m not exaggerating when I say that this lesson, if you remember it, can transform your life.

Number four is to remember that a conversation is a two-way process. It is not just your opportunity to vent, but your opportunity to listen. Give the other person the respect of listening to their point of view. Ask open-ended questions (“What do you think happened here?” “What do you think you/we might have done differently?”). Use not just your listening but your empathy skills to demonstrate that you are not going into the conversation with only one person’s agenda. Yours.

Finally, try to approach the conversation with the mindset that it is just a conversation. I can’t remember who said this, but it stayed with me, “The best things in life are often on the other side of a difficult conversation.”