Whether you like or not – and there is a very good chance that you don't – conflicts were, are, and will be a part of your life. Until the unlikely event that humans will find a way to handle conflicts in a manner that will gradually make them disappear, you'll have to cope with them and that means acquiring skills for conflict resolution in the workplace.
Difficult conversations are a conflict situation. In an organizational context, it usually means a conversation that a manager needs to have with his employee as a result of the latter’s poor results or behavior. If you have to conduct difficult conversations as part of your job, then let me assume that it's one of the least-liked tasks in your list. If so, you can comfort yourself that the same is true for most managers around the world.
In this post, I'd like to give you a few tips on how to conduct a difficult conversation over the phone. It's important to know that conflict resolution in the workplace should usually be conducted face to face, so managing the difficult conversation over the phone is a result of constraint and not of poor confrontational ability. More bluntly said: you use the phone as opposed to conducting a face to face conversation in cases wherein the other side is stationed in a remote site, and not because you're a chickenshit.
Here are some tips for conducting difficult conversations over the phone. You are welcome to add them to your 'Conflict Resolution in the Workplace Kit' as these are also useful in face to face confrontations.
1. Write your goals before starting the conversation. In the many years I've been training and consulting about conflict resolution strategies, negotiation tactics, and other confrontational subjects, I've discovered that: (1) people think they know and understand their own goals before embarking in a difficult conversation; and (2) they hardly spend any time thinking about their goals beforehand. What is it that you'd like to achieve from this conversation? Please notice that I've asked ‘what’ and not ‘how’ as it's very likely that what you regard as your goals are more of a means to an end. A goal is a 'what' whereas a means to an end is a 'how'. There's a world apart between them. More about the vitally important distinction between goals and means to an end can be found in my book ‘The I Win Negotiation & Conflict Approach: Compromise Less and Win More with a Better Alternative to the Win-Win Approach’.
2. Write down key sentences said by the other side. The idea here is not to build yourself a case (unless this is part of your goals). By writing down what the other side is saying, you'll be able to better relate to what he's saying. Most of the time, all the information you need in order to resolve the conflict is handed to you freely by the other side. The problem is that our attention is clouded by what we think, feel, or would like to say that we miss the other side’s information. Writing down will help you practice one of the most important skills: listening. When I advise you to write, I don’t mean that you’ll shorthand everything the other side is saying. Write down sentences that you hear more than once, makes something in your gut move, or have emotional charge embedded in them. It’s likely that these sentences, when properly addressed, will reveal important information.
3. Write your goals at the top of your writing pad. Difficult conversations tend to take a course of their own which is different from the course you’ve wanted and planned for them. One of the ways to keep the conversation on the right track is to look every once in a while at your goals and make sure the conversation is heading towards them. If you’ve submitted into the ‘blame game’, and making the other side wrong is not in your agenda, look at your goals list to help you get back to conducting a more productive conversation.
4. Expect a totally different point of view. "We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are", and because the other side is not you, he may have other point of view on the matter. You may say that this is more than obvious, yet in the midst of the conflict, we tend to strike back on other people's points of view when these contradict with ours. "How can he say that?", "what the heck has gotten into him", or "I don't understand how he came to this conclusion" are all statements indicating you're trying to understand the other side's point of view using your own. Drop it, it's futile.
5. Keep calm. A difficult conversation isn't called difficult for nothing… it is difficult because it has the potential to take you to your emotional edge. Confucius said: "When anger rises, think of the consequences." Knowing you're about to be confronted and that the other side is most likely to have an utterly different point of view than yours should help you calm yourself before the conversation. During the conversation, have a look at your goals at the top of your writing pad to help you restrain yourself from acting against your goals.
6. Have a glass of water handy (you know what, make it a pitcher). Another way to help you cool off is to have a sip of water every now and then. Cold water will help you keep calm, and as you can't speak when you drink, will force you to take a break every once in a while. Also, bringing the water pitcher to the table will put you in a prepared mindset so it'll help you do the rest of the prepared tasks.
7. Smile. A smile can be heard over the phone, and as long as it's not a mocking or a conductive smile, and if it comes in the correct context, it can really soften the atmosphere. If you've lived most of your life around people, you have the basic social abilities to know when to use a smile and when to refrain from it. I recognize you'll add the word 'smile' on your list of goals at the top of your writing pad as a reminder to do so.
All of the above seems acceptable, reasonable, and perhaps even obvious. Yet, the challenge is implementing the above suggested tips in real-time situation. The better you prepare for the conversation – define your goals beforehand, for example – the less difficult it will be for you to manage yourself during the conversation. When did Noah build the ark? Before the storm. The key to a successful conflict resolution in the workplace – whether it’s a difficult conversation conducted over the phone or any other confrontational situation –is to prepare yourself well before the potential storm.