Here are 10 tips to help employers navigate difficult discussions in the workplace:
1. Don’t Procrastinate a Tough Conversation
The first tip is simple, yet it’s often the greatest hurdle to overcome—don’t avoid the conversation. Avoidance is all too common, leaving room for anxiety or resentment to fester and even more challenging conversations to arise later down the line. Effective managers tackle these difficult situations head-first, whether it’s an underwhelming performance review or an HR issue.
2. Plan Your Talking Points, But Don’t Write a Speech
Before diving into the conversation, however, it’s important to take a step back and plan out an approach. On a basic level, that means clarifying the purpose and objectives of the discussion and gathering necessary information or materials. Going beyond this standard prep work, managers can also consider how the other person will react to the conversation and prepare responses. But a meaningful conversation should feel organic, so it’s best to prepare talking points rather than a full script.
3. Focus on the Facts of the Situation
Approaching the anticipated discussion, managers will likely be pulling together the facts of the situation, whether it was a behavioural incident, performance issue or dispute. In any case, it’s crucial to separate truth from personal feelings and look at the case objectively. While this might require using supporting data or evidence, it shouldn’t be presented in a confrontational manner. Managers should also be mindful of their tone, as sticking too much to the facts could come across as cold and detached.
4. Consider the Other Person’s Perspective
As managers continue to examine all angles of a situation to facilitate a meaningful conversation, one essential element to consider is the other person’s perspective. Stepping into the employee or colleague’s shoes and acknowledging the issue from their viewpoint can lead to a more collaborative, constructive conversation. Not only does it show that managers care about their employees, but it also expands their own perspective on the matter—promoting a mutual understanding that better facilitates resolution.
5. Create a Comfortable Environment
The final step before the actual conversation is to foster a comfortable, open environment for all employees. Building trust and mutual respect takes time and effort. That’s why it’s crucial for managers to have regular meetings where they can check in with employees and have candid discussions about anything that comes up. This recurring feedback exchange makes addressing issues that arise much easier and less awkward.
6. Be Confident but Empathetic
Depending on the severity of the topic, difficult workplace conversations can seriously strain relationships with colleagues. Approaching the discussion with empathy, respect and compassion is crucial—but that doesn’t mean managers should add their feelings into the mix. Instead of saying something like, “This is really hard to do,” managers should remain objective to avoid the conversation becoming too personal.
7. Remember to Listen
Active listening is another critical skill for managing difficult conversations. Managers should give employees the space to share their thoughts and feelings without interrupting them. One way to do this is by slowing down the conversation and pausing a moment before responding to truly process what the other person said. To reach a mutual understanding, both parties should engage in this practice.
8. Discuss Possible Solutions
Outside of redundancy or termination conversations, there’s almost always a way for employers and employees to find a solution together. While managers may come prepared with a list of action items for the end of the meeting, they should also use the discussion to build on these, working with the other person to uncover the most productive resolution possible.
9. Don’t Forget Yourself
Even in a successful conversation, emotions can still run high. That’s why it’s important for managers to be aware of how their feelings can play into a discussion. Maintaining a calm, professional demeanour is critical, so if the conversation becomes heated, it might be wise to take a deep breath or a short break.
10. Reflect on the Conversation
Finally, once the hard part is over, managers should learn whatever they can from the discussion by asking questions like, “What went well?” and, “What could be improved next time?” Reflecting on each meeting provides an opportunity for growth and improvement that only improves effective communication in future conversations.