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10 Tips For Handling Difficult Conversations At Work

Conflict is inevitable in the workplace. You have to deliver bad news, ask someone to make a change, or correct an inappropriate behavior. Heres how to manage contentious exchanges at work without making things worse

How to manage contentious exchanges at work without making things worse

Conflict is inevitable in the workplace. You have to deliver bad news, ask someone to make a change, or correct an inappropriate behavior. These moments all require conversations and these conversations are difficult. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified potential conflict. New working conditions and external threats and pressures have led to a rise in mental health concerns, possibly affecting work performance and team dynamics. As a manager, you need to resolve these conflicts in a timely and professional manner that minimizes disruption to productivity. But this can be easier said than done when emotions are running high. 

“We tend to view difficult conversations as a personal attack, a power struggle that becomes a win-lose situation,” says Salma Sakr, Chief Growth Officer of MindNation. “But if both parties treated them as an opportunity to grow both personally and professionally, to increase understanding, and to achieve goals, then we can address the situation sooner and with more ease.”

While there is no one way to have a difficult conversation, there is a blueprint that we can use to support us as we head into those conversations:

  1.  Before inviting the other person to a conversation, clarify your primary and secondary purpose. Salma suggests you do this by asking yourself two questions: first, what is this person doing that they should not be doing? And second, what is the person not doing that they should be doing?
    For example, you have an employee who does great work but is always a day or too late with projects. The primary purpose of your conversation is to emphasize the importance of getting work turned in on time. Your secondary purpose is to understand why there might be delays, what is the root cause of them being late all the time? 
  1. Never initiate a conversation when you’re overly emotional. “It’s okay to feel emotions. Your emotions tell you that a conversation needs to happen,” Salma assures. “But you’ve got to time it right. When you are calm, you’re in a better position to initiate and engage.”
  2. Anticipate resistance. Resistance is defined as any form of negativity or non-acceptance, an unwillingness to move forward. It means the conversation is either not happening or it’s not going in the direction you want. Examples of ways people can be resistant in conversations: 
  • “What you’re asking for is not possible”
  •  “This isn’t fair”
  •  “It will cost too much” 
  • “I don’t have enough time to do what you want”
  •  “I told you I’ve already tried that”

Resistance leads to non-productive conversations. The good news is there’s actually a way to test for resistance without getting trapped in an unproductive back and forth with the person you are speaking to. “Frame your request using the magic phrase ‘Would you be willing…?’” Salma suggests. “By doing this you are gauging how resistant they are and giving them space to decide if they are willing or not.”

  1. Don’t use electronic or digital communication to engage in a difficult conversation. “The urge can be pretty strong to hide behind an email, text or chat when emotions are hot but things can be ‘lost in translation’ when written,” Salma points out. A face to face conversation (even just through video call) is always best. And, if someone triggers you with their email, don’t take the bait and don’t defend yourself. “Just don’t respond. Ask for a face to face meeting. If that’s not possible, ask for a phone meeting,” says Salma. 
  2. Don’t play the blame game. The go-to response when you are angry is to point fingers, which will make the other party defensive. So control your urge to be right, to be understood, and to win.  Instead, practice active listening and get their side of the story. Until the other person feels heard, you’re only going to get defensiveness and disagreement. You don’t even have to agree. All you have to do is acknowledge their reality.
  3. Cultivate curiosity. “Being a know-it-all closes off possibilities,” says Salma. “If you think you already know someone’s motives, you won’t try to understand them. And if you already know what someone is going to say, you avoid communication.” So genuinely show eagerness to understand, ask questions, and make sure you are having a dialogue not a monologue. There are two people in this conversation, so make sure you act that way.
  4. Stay focused You’ve probably been engaged in a conversation that took a wrong turn. Chances are, you got distracted, you forgot your objective. Focus on what you want, not on what you don’t want. When you keep your focus on what you want, it’s easier to get to your end result and move forward.
  5. Redirect so you are in control of the conversation. If you do find yourself facing a lot of resistance, or the person using many distracting phrases, you can use the following statements to help get you back on track. Examples include:
  • “I understand where you are coming from, but right now we are talking about your project delays.” 
  • “That may be true but that is not as urgent as what we are discussing now. Let’s prioritize.” 
  • “I suggest we park that and come back to it once we finish our conversation.” 
  • “Clearly you have a lot on your mind, let’s set up more time to discuss that after we finish what we came to discuss here.” 

“This way, you are giving space for their emotions but putting a boundary that this conversation is focused on a certain discussion and that you won’t deviate,” says Salma.

  1. Don’t generalize. Eliminate words like “always” and “never” because you will lose the other person, i.e. “You always do this…” or “ You never do that…” Instead, you bring forward the specific observable behavior. “Last week, I observed you did this…”
  1. Create accountability. Just because the conversation has happened and you both got through it doesn’t mean it ends there. Make sure to put a deadline within which you want to see the behavior or results changed/improved. “Ask them to book it in your calendar so you can reconvene and assess progress,” shares Salma. “This will ensure they remain accountable to the changes you have requested.” 

By following the tips outlined above, it is possible to transform difficult conversations into constructive exchanges. You may not be able to control how others think and react, but you can control our own emotions, thoughts, and responses so that the relationship with the other person becomes better for it. 

MindNation offers Company Culture Drive Ⓒ Talks — interactive webinars featuring experts on mental health and other dimensions of wellness. One of our most popular talks is “Having Difficult Conversations In The Workplace” where we train managers on how to handle tough conversations with team members, ensuring the well-being of all involved. To know more about this email us at [email protected]

— Written by Jaclyn Lutanco-Chua of MindNation

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