How to have that difficult but essential conversation

Martha, a manager, wants to tell her team member Jerry that he is not operating at his productive best. She says “Jerry, I notice your day is scattered, and you aren’t able to finish your tasks on time. I want to make sure you perform well. How I can help?” Though Martha means well, Jerry gets angry and says “I am doing the best I can, I am always busy and there is no one to work with me. When will it be enough for you?”

Workplaces are full of such situations that hold a varying range of conflict. A study by CPP Global shows that 85% of employees experience conflict to some degree. We’ve never heard anyone say, “I love dealing with it!” Another research by Daniel Dana indicates that 60-80% of all difficulties in organizations stem from conflict in relationships between employees, and not from deficits in skill/motivation. Infact, our default strategy might be to brush the conflict under the carpet, hoping it goes away. But this definitely boomerangs. Absenteeism, turnover, low productivity, internal politics are all off-shoots of ineffective conflict management.

What is the best way to nip it all in the bud? By having an in-person conversation.

Fred Kofman, VP at LinkedIn and author of Conscious Business, believes that because workplace conflicts involve high stakes and emotional charge, conversations addressing them are prone to breaking down, causing everyone involved to get defensive. It becomes an eye for an eye situation.

For better management, Kofman says, both parties need to relate to each other positively, create a common ground, and see the discussion as an investment for success. Both need to have takeaways at the end, and should ideally feel relieved or pleasant. If you are initiating a conversation, it is important to decide what your goal is and share the same with your counterpart. But never rehearse a conversation in advance, as it will leave no room for the other person to express him/herself. Kofman offers seven steps to manage such conversations:

  1. Listen – Share your intention for the conversation, and listen without interrupting to see the world from the other’s perspective. Ask questions like ‘What do you think is happening?’
  2. Ask – Inquire openly, with curiosity; try to understand why your counterpart thinks what s/he thinks. ‘What has been challenging for you?’, ‘How do you feel about your work?’ are potent directions.
  3. Summarize – Let the other person know that you heard what s/he said. Summarize and ask them if you understood it correctly, and if they meant it that way.
  4. Validate – Acknowledge your counterpart’s version as reasonable, even if you interpret things differently.
  5. Express – Share your truth, your assessment of the situation, your examples, and your reasoning. Speak in first person. Use ‘I’, not ‘We’. Ask, ‘How is this landing on you?’, ‘Is there anything you’d like to add?’
  6. Negotiate – Engage creatively and try to find a solution that addresses everyone’s concerns. “What would you like to accomplish?’ or ‘What do you suggest we do?’ are great questions.
  7. Commit – Formalize your agreement with a series of commitments for both of you, with timeframes.

A key factor to remember is that these steps are not linear in any manner. You may have to go back and forth between steps, especially listening, asking and expressing, till you arrive at commitments.

Going by the above, Martha could’ve probably said, “Jerry, I’d like to discuss some concerns I have about your performance over the past few weeks, and am keen on understanding your experience as well. I have always enjoyed the creativity and thoroughness you bring into your work. But I feel you’ve not been at your productive best. I’m wondering what is happening at your end?”

What would you do if you were Martha?

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