The “Dreaded” Difficult Conversation

Difficult conversations are a part of life that most of us would rather avoid. In business, whether it’s addressing performance issues or delivering the news of termination, these discussions can be emotionally charged and challenging. However, they are crucial for the growth and success of both employees and organizations. In this blog, we will discuss how to approach difficult conversations in a new light and provide examples.

The Importance of Difficult Conversations
Difficult conversations are not just about addressing problems; they are opportunities for growth, learning, and improvement. When handled correctly, they can strengthen relationships, foster understanding, and lead to positive changes. Here are some key principles to keep in mind when preparing for and conducting difficult conversations:

1. Prepare Thoroughly
Before entering any difficult conversation, it’s crucial to be well-prepared. Understand the specific issue you want to address and gather relevant information. Consider potential solutions and outcomes. Thinking through potential questions in advance and planning for the various paths the conversation may take will ease the mind.

2. Choose the Right Time and Place
Timing is everything! Location matters! There is something to be said for reading the room and knowing one’s audience. There is no set time or place that applies to every individual or situation; it is ok that these things vary by situation. Always ensure both parties have enough time and space to discuss the matter without distractions.

3. Focus on the Issue, Not the Person
It is very important that we separate the behavior or performance issue from the person. Be clear about the problem without making personal attacks or personal assumptions. We are having the conversation in an effort to improve behavior or performance with the goal of improvement and a positive outcome in mind. The conversation is not meant to be punitive or personal. Sometimes conversations like this are received in a personal way regardless of our intent, so it is important to point out that the goal is a positive outcome.

4. Active Listening
Listening is as important as speaking. Give the other person a chance to express themselves, and truly listen to their perspective without interrupting. It is also important to note that this is not a negotiation and certainly should not turn into an argument; do not, however, be afraid to listen. It may not change a thing, but hearing someone’s view is the right thing to do.

5. Use “I” Statements
Phrase your concerns using “I” statements to avoid making accusatory remarks. For example, “I have noticed a decline in your performance” instead of “You’re not performing well.” “I am concerned about [insert issue]; so concerned in fact, that I’d like to discuss potential solutions with you today… how can I help?”

6. Show Understanding
If there are emotions involved, acknowledge the feelings. Let the other person know that you appreciate their perspective. “I see that you are feeling upset, tell me more about that.” “I sense that you are feeling strongly about this topic, help me understand your view on this.” I have always found that the feelings are generally tied to something else and not usually about the topic at hand. If we can get to a place of understanding what else may be going on, perhaps we can help.

7. Set Expectations
Setting expectations for going forward is crucial. This can be in the form of future check-ins or small goals over a set timeline that can let both parties know that progress is being made. Sometimes the expectation is simply stating the next steps that could occur should there be no changes in behavior or performance. Either way, both parties should be very clear as the conversation closes.

Difficult conversations may not always be easy, but with the right approach and preparation, they can lead to positive outcomes for all parties involved. Embrace them as opportunities for growth, understanding and improvement within your organization.

Christina Hobbs, Head of Operations