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How To Nail Difficult Conversations At Work

Jul 27, 2020

Difficult conversations at work are part and parcel being a manager. After 25 years of leadership and management training ‘avoiding conflict’ always seems to be the top offender that some managers struggle with. It doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon. Those hard conversations can be anything from having to give ‘constructive feedback’ to having a chat about ongoing performance issues. 

When these conversations are avoided or put off altogether it makes the conversation even harder as the issue or situation gets worse or lingers on until there is a defining moment that forces some method of action. Here are my thoughts as an executive coach on how to nail difficult conversations at work.

Difficult Conversations : Deal With Distractions

So, what gets in the way and how easy is it to sort out? Time (or lack of it) usually comes up first on the procrastination list. Followed by concern about how the employee is going to react, or if people are honest that it’s just too hard so they hope it will go away.

I know that some employees can be difficult, very difficult and their responses may be unpredictable and consequently hard to handle. There are times when employees can come out of these kinds of meetings with completely the wrong end of the stick because the manager has talked around the houses rather than just coming out with it!

It’s Your Job To Manage Difficult Conversations

Do not apologise for being a manager or ‘managing an employee’. I sometimes hear phrases when asking almost permission to meet such as “oh I hope you don’t mind we need to have a chat about…” Or “Can we just have a chat, nothing to worry about and it’s only a small thing”. These phrases immediately lower your status as a manager as it sounds like you are asking for permission instead of calmly asking something that should be quite normal.

You are having this conversation to help them, not to be horrid or difficult. It’s part of their learning journey and this experience (if they listen) will help them develop and be better than they already are. They won’t always see it in the moment but they will remember it later.

As a manager, your role is to listen to any feedback, data or information you might be given by the employee. However, that doesn’t mean you have to agree, defend or change your position (unless it makes sense to). It’s okay to agree to disagree at the end of the day you are setting the bar for the role they get paid to do, they then have the choice whether they want to do it or not.     

Remain Balanced in Tough Discussion

The key to nailing difficult conversations is to remain balanced. Remember to highlight the pieces they do well but don’t over-egg these to somehow ‘counter-balance’ the harder end of the conversation. It’s always good to have something positive to state amongst the constructive comments but over-egging the good can dilute your message and allow them to avoid their accountability or responsibility in the situation.

Not everyone is your friend and ‘being liked’ should never override ‘doing the right thing’. Respect is something that you earn as a manager, and not everyone is going to like you but hopefully, they will respect you even if they don’t always like what you have to say.

Difficult Conversations: Don’t Avoid Them

If you avoid giving someone feedback or correcting their behaviour you are not doing your duty as their Manager. How can they learn judgment, resilience, robustness and the ability to manage themselves in any situation if you aren’t teaching them how to do so. You are helping them to be better individuals and more skilled to enable them to move on and up.     

Always make sure they have heard you when finishing the meeting, having a quick recap enables any misunderstandings to be sorted out there and then. It also enables you to remind them of the conversation at a later date if needed. Following up in writing with a summary is also a good idea. Go forth and have ‘that’ conversation, you will be glad you did.

Find Out More

Paula Meir is an executive coach with 25 years experience in her field. After leaving the corporate world behind, Paula now helps clients reach their potential by overcoming their sticking points. 

To find out more about how executive coaching could work for you and your career, get in touch. Paula is currently offering virtual sessions over Skype or Zoom to clients based in the UK and internationally. 

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