In an ideal workplace, everyone gets along with everybody else, there’s immense collaboration and team play, targets are met, and outcomes delivered. The reality is far from ideal. With managing people dynamics, negotiating concerns about productivity and quality output, dealing with pressure from competition, and operating in the VUCA world means that managers often need to have difficult conversations.

Whether it’s addressing poor performance, conflicts, or personal issues affecting work, it’s important to approach the proverbial negative conversation with the right attitude and preparation. Here are some tips to help you turn that ‘difficult conversation’ with a team member into an opportunity for candid dialogue and deeper connect:

  1. Prepare: Take the time to consider the situation holistically and prepare for it. Think about the specific issue you need to address, the context from varied vantage points, the possible outcomes, and the precise words you will use to express concerns. This will help steer the conversation in a positive direction without getting sidetracked. Click here for some conversation openers and a checklist from Judy Ringer, renowned author of ‘Turn Enemies Into Allies: The Art of Peace in the Workplace’.
  2. Select an appropriate time: Research suggests that our attitudes are brighter and our minds are sharper in the morning. While this might not be true for everyone, the learning here is that this might be a good time to have that tough talk rather than the fag end of a day. Along with the time, choose a place that’s private and free from interruptions, giving the discussion the attention it deserves.
  3. Be empathetic: Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and seek their perspective. Avoid blaming or criticizing. You’ll want to create an environment of inquiry by focusing on the facts and not on preconceived assumptions. Use concrete examples to illustrate your contention. Instead of vague statements such as “I find you are distracted these days”, try “I noticed that several times in the last meeting you responded only after being prompted 2-3 times.”
  4. Listen actively: Active listening is critical to having a successful difficult conversation. Patiently listen, keep eye contact, probe at the right time, and avoid interrupting. This indicates you value the other person’s perspective and are taking the conversation seriously.
  5. Stay calm and slow the pace: Emotions can run high during difficult conversations. Instead of getting defensive or raising your voice, take deep breaths and focus on the issue at hand. “A difficult conversation tends to go best when you think about it as just a normal conversation,” says Holy Weeks, author of ‘Failure to Communicate’. Also, slowing your cadence and pausing before responding to the other person “gives you a chance to find the right words” and tends to “defuse negative emotion” from your counterpart.
  6. Set clear expectations: Create an action plan to transform the difficult conversation into a productive one. Set goals for improvement, list steps that could lead towards them, and discuss ways in which you or any other member of your organization could help.

One last tip: follow up.  Check-in with the team member to see how he or she is doing and track progress. This signals your commitment to help the person succeed and will also let you address any new issues that may arise. What better way than this to ensure that a difficult chat leads to long-term, fruitful outcomes?

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