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How To Handle Difficult Conversations At Work

Handling the difficult conversation requires skill and empathy, but ultimately, it requires the courage to go ahead and do it

Difficult conversations are an inevitable part of life, at a personal level they are a tad easier to handle but at a management level, they can feel like a bit of a tightrope walk as livelihoods are involved usually.

That inner voice that we all have that tells us when we need to have a difficult conversation with someone, a conversation that, if it took place, would improve life at the office for ourselves and for everyone else on our team. But fear drowns that inner voice—and we put the conversation off. Meanwhile, the offending individual continues to provide substandard performance, miss deadlines, engage in interpersonal conflicts and exhibit toxic behavior.

When undercurrents of strife exist then the mind is swamped by questions about, How should you prepare for this kind of discussion? What are the right words to use? Most importantly, How can you manage the exchange so that it goes as smoothly as possible?

Know how to begin

Not knowing how to start is the biggest deterrent and main reason for procrastination of dealing with a difficult conversation.

The best way to start is with a direct approach.

Be authentic and address the difficult conversation head on, say it as it is. Tell the person that you know there is an issue, acknowledge it. Being direct is a respectful approach and people appreciate that.

Ambushing people and catching them unawares can surprise them and put them on the back foot.

You don't want to ambush people by surprising them about the nature of the "chat." Make sure your tone of voice signals discussion and not inquisition, exploration and not punishment.

Alter your mindset

The quality of the stories you tell yourself determines the quality of your life. Your mindset determines that story.

If you’re gearing up for a conversation you’ve labeled “difficult,” you’re more likely to feel nervous and upset about it beforehand. Instead, view it as just a normal conversation which is less likely to wreck your nerves.

Mindful breathing

Being mindful and living your life with awareness helps you stay calmer and centered at all times.

Employing the practice of mindful breathing on a regular basis helps you build the capacity to absorb any “blows” that come your way.

Have a plan or an outline of what you want to communicate

Life seldom plays out as you plan it to, but it helps to jot down the key points of the conversation that you would like to have.

Your language should be simple, clear, direct, and neutral.

Be compassionate, cater to and acknowledge your counterpart’s perspective

Difficult kinds of conversations often lead to strained working relationships, which can be stressful.

It’s prudent, therefore, to come at sensitive topics from a place of empathy. Be considerate; be compassionate.

Difficult conversations are not pleasant, but you can manage to deliver difficult news in a courageous, honest and fair way but do not sympathise or play the victim card while being the bearer of dread.

Listen and pace out the conversation

Everyone wants to feel heard and respected.

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.

So keep it nice and slow.

Don’t lose the relationship-Preserve it

A leader who has high emotional intelligence is always mindful to limit any collateral damage to a relationship. It takes years to build bridges with people and only minutes to blow them up. Think about how the conversation can fix the situation, without erecting an irreparable wall between you and the person.

Be consistent

Ensure that your objective is fair and that you are using a consistent approach. For example, if the person thinks you have one set of rules for this person and a different set for another, you'll be perceived as showing favoritism. Nothing erodes a relationship faster than perceived inequality. Employees have long-term memories of how you handled situations in the past. Aim for consistency in your leadership approach. We trust a leader who is consistent because we don't have to second-guess where they stand on important issues such as culture, corporate values, and acceptable behaviors.

Work on your conflict resolution skills

Conflict is a natural part of human interaction. Managing conflict effectively is one of the vital skills of leadership. Have a few, proven phrases that can come in handy in crucial spots.

Learn to sit with the silence

There will be moments in the conversation where a silence occurs. Don't rush to fill it with words. A pause also has a calming effect and can help us connect better. For example, if you are an extrovert, you're likely uncomfortable with silence, as you're used to thinking while you're speaking. This can be perceived as steamrolling or overbearing, especially if the other party is an introvert. Introverts want to think before they speak.

Choose the right place to have the conversation

When having difficult conversations, it isn’t fair to have them come to your office, nor is it a prudent strategy. The power balance is skewed in your favour.

Choosing a neutral meeting pace is usually the best option, where you can sit adjacent to each other with no desk as a barrier.

Handling the difficult conversation requires skill and empathy, but ultimately, it requires the courage to go ahead and do it. The more you get into the habit of facing these issues squarely, the more adept you will become at it.


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