Navigating difficult conversations is a fact of life in the work world, but even people who are typically adept communicators can struggle with it.
Yet initiating and managing tough discussions is a valuable skill for just about every employee and an essential one for managers, business owners, decision-makers and anyone who supervises teams. Many of them dread those encounters, rushing through them, failing to deliver the needed messages or simply avoiding them altogether.
In fact, an Inc. Magazine report said that most people handle difficult situations by simply ignoring them, citing a finding by workplace resource company Bravely that 70 percent of employees are avoiding difficult conversations with their direct reports, bosses or colleagues.
But ignoring problems, as we all know in our guts even if we don’t behave accordingly, does not make them go away. Avoiding tough work talks can erode productivity, organizational trust and employee engagement and contribute to a toxic environment.
There will always be tricky topics that need to be addressed in the workplace – performance problems, peer conflicts, absenteeism, customer complaints, layoffs, unreasonable client demands and more. The COVID pandemic creates even more reasons that managers must communicate information people might not want to hear, from vaccine or mask mandates to social distancing rules to return-to-office protocols.
Since tough talks are here to stay, here are tips for making them less tricky, gleaned from research and reports by the Society for Human Resource Management, the Harvard Business Review and Fast Company magazine.
- Don’t let it fester: Sometimes it makes sense to wait and see if people resolve a small issue on their own, or to slowly escalate your feedback with the person as dictated by an escalation of the problem. But letting a situation go unaddressed for long is a recipe for resentment and can lead to surprises. If an employee’s work has been below par but no one has mentioned it all year, it’s hardly unreasonable if they’re caught off guard when it finally comes up during their mediocre performance review.
- Start with “why”: By the time people tackle a difficult conversation, they’ve often made a lot of assumptions about the other person’s behaviors, motives or obstacles. But as every decent journalism professor preaches, Don’t “assume,” because it makes an “ass” of “u” and “me.” Ask questions, seeking first to understand why. If an employee who has always been conscientious and hard-working seems to be slacking while working from home, don’t assume she’s taking advantage. Maybe she’s juggling the demands of her job with supervising virtual learning for three kids whose school is closed. That information might not change how you ultimately resolve the situation, but it gives you important insights that can shape the tough conversation.
- Prepare, but don’t script: Now isn’t the time to wing it, catching the person you need to talk with in the hallway or launching into a conversation unprepared at the end of an unrelated Zoom meeting. It’s essential to gather relevant facts and background, think through the main points you need to make and consider how you’ll handle the situation if the other person has an angry or tearful reaction. But, while preparation is critical, scripting out the tough conversation can lead to a robotic, canned talk.
- Don’t beat around the bush: Experts in human resources and conflict resolution recommend keeping the conversation simple and direct. Filibustering and beating around the bush can ratchet up the tension, leaving the recipient of unwelcome news confused and on edge. Better to get to the point directly, professionally and neutrally.
- Avoid being overly emotional: While the other person may react with strong emotion, the person initiating the tough talk should avoid an overly emotional delivery to keep the conversation as calm as possible. Experts say it’s fine, even essential, to be empathetic to what the recipient of hard news is feeling. But don’t use language that implies they should feel sympathy for your “plight” in being the bearer of bad news. Managers sometimes start the conversation by saying, “This is really difficult for me to say” or “It hurts me to have to tell you your position is being eliminated.” This is misguided and unfair to expect the person getting unwanted news to feel sorry for you for having to tell them.
For most of us, handling difficult conversations is never going to be our favorite part of the job. But approaching it with these pointers in mind might make it a bit more bearable for all parties.