Achieving productive outcomes from difficult conversations

The game-changing part of having a successful difficult conversation is how you approach it, says Johnson Wong.

Having difficult conversations is a part of employee management that all HR professionals and leaders face in their business routine. Whether it’s informing an employee about poor performance or addressing complaints about hygiene or unprofessional behaviour, people rarely react well to negative feedback.

The reaction, when confronted with criticism of undesirable behaviour or poor performance at work, is unsettling for most of us.

Research studies from psychology and neuroscience have suggested a strong relationship to the survival instinct that is hard-wired in us – the fight or flight response to threat. While it may seem extreme to link it to merely a difficult conversation, it is a natural reaction for an employee to think that their job is at risk.

As a result, some employees may withdraw emotionally from the situation, and others may just storm out. In other cases, employees may challenge and adopt an offensive stance or even display hostility.

Always centre the discussion on the behaviour and not the individual.

Both types of fight or flight responses can be prevented and avoid making the situation worse. The game-changing part of having a successful difficult conversation is how you approach it. It is recommended not to leave issues for too long, so tackling them while they are fresh in your mind is critical.

It’s true that we have limited direct control of the behaviour of others. But we do have control over our own feelings, what we say and how we say it. The following are some tips to help you achieve productive outcomes from difficult conversations with your employees or colleagues:

Don’t delay

Timing is critical to have that difficult conversation to address the situation. Do not let it drag too long as it will undoubtedly have a negative impact work relationship between co-workers and teams. Prolonging the encounter will only make matters worse.

Be prepared

Managers often report losing their confidence when faced with conflicting information during the difficult conversation. Documenting the relevant facts and rehearsing the possible scenarios in advance will keep you grounded.

Use a conducive space for that face-to-face meeting

Set the stage right when requesting an in-person meeting or a casual coffee chat depending on the gravity of the situation. Having a face-to-face meeting minimises other interpretations that may arise from receiving just emails or telephone conversations. The meeting venue chosen should be conducive for the discussion and free from distractions and interruptions.

Focus on the facts with the right language

When framing the problem using personal terms, the employee takes it personally and gets defensive. Always centre the discussion on the behaviour and not the individual. When presenting the problematic behaviour, descriptions should be factual and specific to remove any doubt or confusion. Use simple, clear and objective words to explain the impact of the undesired behaviour.


Be aware of your body language

Be mindful the way you project yourself when having the difficult conversation. Use supportive, open and positive communicative gestures such as maintaining eye contact, nodding and slightly leaning towards the speaker. Keeping a good body language will reinforce the message that you are focused on helping the employee become successful.

Use the right tone

During a difficult conversation, speech can become hurried along with tone and volume intensified, making you perceived as a flustered, angry and emotional person. Pay attention to how you project your voice and use controlled breathing techniques such as slowing down your breathing to keep your voice sounding even and reasonable.

Practise active listening and empathy

Demonstrating active listening will also help signal your concern for their perspective. Step into the other person’s shoes to understand what could be the factors driving them to act – say or do things the way they are. Knowing their viewpoint will help you to shape and deliver the message more effectively.

Commitment to next steps

When ending the conversation, there should be an agreement on the next course of action such as what needs to change and the timeframe to review the progress outlined clearly. For the outcomes expected from the conversation to be successful, follow-up actions are critical to ensure the issues are resolved completely and effectively. In essence, the conversation is focused on helping the employee to succeed.

The takeaway

Although difficult conversations may be uncomfortable many of us, they don’t have to be confrontational. Having the courage to deal with undesired behaviour could be a learning moment for the employee as well as the manager, and it can be another opportunity in developing a better work relationship too.


About the author

Johnson Wong is a learning strategist and director of Empower Training and Consultancy Pte Ltd., where he provides services for clients in learning design, learning technology solutions (e-courses), business design, human capital development and training advisory.




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