The initiation and engagement in difficult conversation is a part of every manager's ordinary duties and yet it is one of the least liked tasks. Some managers have openly confessed to me that engaging in a difficult conversation, usually with an employee, casts a shadow in their calendar (in the sense of an event they fear) before, and quite often way after, it is conducted.
Although a difficult conversation will not necessarily be framed as a process of conflict resolution in the workplace, that is exactly what it is; whether the conflict is already apparent and hence needs to be resolved or it exists only in potential and hence it needs to be prevented. Either way, a manager must employ the proper methodology and tools to handle the confrontational situation that a difficult conversation may impose.
I guess that the fact that conducting a difficult conversation is one of the least liked tasks that cause managers to skip a proper preparation. Unfortunately this creates a vicious cycle as inadequate preparation always increases the difficulty in conversation and casts a negative impression at every thought of it. This recursively makes one reluctant to confront the next conversation by better preparing themselves. There is a saying that "you either go to your dentist or crawl to him" and in regarding difficult conversations, it's either you train yourself to conduct it in the best possible way or you'll continue to conduct it in a less than optimum way. In either case difficult conversations won't completely disappear from your life.
Here are a few tips that will enable you to conduct every difficult conversation more easily.
Correctly set your goals
What would you like to achieve from this conversation? The first, and perhaps the most important question regarding your goals, is whether you would like to retain the employee you're having the difficult conversation with or whether you would prefer letting them go. In addition, list other goals you might have as well and make sure to include a list of your constraints too. A list of both your goals and constraints will help you build a proper conversation strategy and hence the conversation flow.
Use assertive (as opposed to aggressive) communication
Aggressive language – for example accusations, are a poor way to vent your feelings. Goals-wise, aggressive language is counter productive – it sabotages the achievement of your own goals. For example, whether your goal is to retain the employee or to let him go; what will accusations such as "with such a bad attitude, it’s no wonder that your team members don't want to work with you" help in keeping the employee? Such comments are pointless. If you want to retain the employee you are most likely to hurt their feelings by using aggressive language and hence damage their motivation. Exceedingly aggressive language or an employee that is too sensitive will consequently get the offended to such a degree that they may later decide to leave. Again, what good did it do you? None! If you've decided to let them go, what will you get by being nasty? After all if it is clear that you do not need their services any more, aggressive language will yield you nothing but earn you a reputation of a nasty person.
Aggressive language doesn't need to be loud or offensive so make sure you know the difference between an assertive communication and an aggressive one in order to prevent you from slipping into the aggressive form.
Well defined goals will help you focus on what you want to achieve from the conversation and eventually help you put together a constructive – assertive dialog.
Collect tangible examples
When conducting a process of conflict resolution in the workplace – in our case a difficult conversation – you might need to present tangible examples. Difficult conversation is not a mini trial so it's not that you gather incriminating materials in order to prove the other side wrong; you may use tangible example, if and only if, discussing the past will serve your goals. If proving the other side wrong won't advance you towards achieving your goals, and most of the times it won't, then refrain from it.
In addition tangible examples will help you in the process of setting your goals as they will be set based on real facts and not on your impression, thoughts or feelings. The word tangible is used to help you refrain from using rumors, word-to-mouth impressions or any other intangible fact. You may go ahead and bring out things that the other side insists on hearing to support why you say the things you do.
Remember, a good difficult conversation, is one that refers more to the future and less to the past.
Write your goals on the top of your writing pad
As you can see, accurately defining your goals before setting off into a difficult conversation is crucial. Hence, as the last tip I'd recommend you to write them at the top of your writing pad; the one you’ll bring along to the conversation. This will be of great value in keeping you within the confines if the subject matter and prevent you from digressing into irrelevant issues or sliding into a 'blame game'.
Conflicts in general and conflict resolution in the workplace in particular tend to slide into a 'did not – did too' pattern. If you recall the last time you were in one of these futile communication ping-pongs, you'll see how counter productive they are.
When you feel you're about to slide into such a 'ping – pong' - dialog, look at the goals clearly enlisted at the top of your writing pad, there is a very good chance that such a pattern won't concur with your goals. Hence, the list will help you restrain yourself and navigate the conversation to the direction that will take you to where you'd like to go.
Do you remember my previous allegory about the dentist? It's either you go or crawl to him. Difficult conversations are an inevitable part of every manager's life. Make an effort to develop a methodology and a toolbox to keep you walking, rather than crawling, to your next difficult conversation.
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