Managing difficult conversations: Advice for leaders

Delicate situations require understanding, empathy and decisiveness. But it can seem easier said than done at times. Struggled with tough talk in the past? We’re here to help.

It’s natural to want to shy away from difficult conversations. We’re only human, after all. But when you’re a manager, there comes a time when you’ll have to deal with certain workplace issues head on. An underperforming team member. Conflicts between employees. A shift in company hierarchy.

Challenging exchanges like these are never ideal, but there are plenty of ways you can talk things through in a fair and transparent way – without strong emotions and knee-jerk reactions exacerbating the issues.

Below, we’ll show you how to tackle difficult conversations as a leader so that both you and your team can benefit in a positive and proactive manner.

Why we avoid conversations

Whether you’re having to make someone redundant, dealing with a clash of personalities or fielding questions, it’s understandable why you’d want to avoid having these kinds of conversations in the first place. They can be uncomfortable. They knock the natural balance of the workplace out of whack. And the potential for emotions to boil over is very real.

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From not wanting to upset others and fearing the outcome to bad experiences of similar instances in the past, there are many reasons why managers put off meeting tough talk head on. But often, evading these perceived conflicts tends to make things worse. And the longer you leave them, the worse they may potentially get later down line.

At this point, you run the risking of all manner of consequences, including:

– More dysfunction among teams and individuals

– Reduced morale and productivity

– Fewer opportunities for employees to grow and learn

– An inability to respond and deal with company or market changes

– Higher employee turnover

By avoiding these conversations – which may only occur once in a while – the resulting consequences far outweigh the (apparent) issue of sitting down to discuss things properly.

Tips for handling difficult conversations at work 

So, what can you do to defuse a potentially explosive discussion at work? By keeping the following in mind before you sit down for a chat, you’ll get in the habit of welcoming and dealing with difficult conversations rather than avoiding them altogether.

Shot of a man and woman going through paperwork and using a laptop together in their coffee shop

  • Understand the purpose of the conversation

 Before you’ve even talked things through, you’re bound to have made some assumptions already. Conclusions have been drawn. Emotions are stirring. Sides have been taken. And that’s OK. However, it’s important to leave your assumptions at the door above anything else.

Instead, think about what it is you want to achieve from the discussion. Are you trying to make changes? Are you looking for people to voice their opinion? By envisioning the purpose and outcomes of the conversation, it gives you an anchoring point should things begin to get heated.

  • Choose the right setting

It might be tough in today’s remote-forward workplaces, but the conversation’s location plays a large part in setting the tone. If it’s possible, try holding the meeting in a private office or a meeting room. If not, then meeting in a coffee shop can be a strong alternative, allowing everyone involved to be more at ease.

What’s important is that the location is away from other employees, so that you and your team member(s) can have productive conversation without prying ears and eyes hovering around outside.

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  • Prepare a script

If you’re worried about tripping over your words or putting a foot wrong, then scripting out what you want to say can help put the jitters at ease. Write down what you want to say at the opening and closing of the conversation, and then prepare a few points you want to touch on over the course of things.

Writing down your thoughts keeps your mind organised, ensures greater clarity and allows for a more concise conversation. And with a script to stick to, it keeps you solely focused on the topics that lay at the root of the issue.

  • Put your biases aside

If you’ve struggled with such conversations in the past, then it can be easy to let those old biases come to the fore and cloud your judgment. When this happens, what we hear and how we respond can be negatively affected, making for unsatisfactory, ineffective discussion. You don’t want to cast the person opposite as the villain before you’ve even sat down.

Remember that every instance is different. Don’t let what happened in the past fool you into thinking the same thing will take place in future conversations.

Concentrated serious young arabian businesswoman in hijab talking to male team leader, headshot. Focused mixed race partners discussing marketing strategy or project details together at office.

  • Listen to what they have to say

When emotions flare up, it might be tempting to stamp them out in your responses. After all, you do have seniority as others’ manager. But using your authority in this way can only make matters worse.

Rather than reacting negatively to what the person opposite you is saying, listen to them attentively and actively. A seasoned listener will be able to take in the tone and identify the language to get to the bottom of what is truly being said. From here, you can reflect on their response, adapt your words and own tone to suit theirs and reply in a more considered, cool-headed manner.

  • Welcome their point of view

By listening actively, you’ll be more open to hearing what the other party has to say, keeping the conversation from becoming one-sided. Welcoming different perspectives provides you with new information to work with both during and after the conversation.

Likewise, sharing the floor with others lets them know that their contributions are valued. This goes a long way towards ensuring that neither party go on the defensive.

Some conversations may be difficult, but they should neither be an attack or a monologue. Let yourself hear their side of the story so the two of you can benefit from a well-rounded discussion.

Shot of two young businesswomen talking to each other while being seated in the office at work

  • Gather evidence (if it’s needed)

Should the conversation require it, you may need to source evidence, particularly where problematic behaviour is involved. Evidence grounds the discussion in facts as opposed to gossip and misinformation, cooling down tempers in the process.

This makes it easier to state your case and keep subjective observations to a minimum, and can prevent repeat instances of the issue from taking place again.

  • Be mindful of your body language

The way you physically position yourself sends a huge message to those around you. If you’re tense, other people will be able to read your signals loud and clear.

Instead of presenting the idea you don’t want to make things a true discussion, use positive non-verbal communication to everyone’s benefit. Maintain eye contact, mirror the speaker’s body language and sit up with your arms crossed. Even simple things like this can make a major impact on how these tougher conversations will play out.

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