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Sat 2 Nov 2019

A 4-Step Framework For Handling Difficult Conversations In The Workplace


Human Resources and Career Advice
Difficult conversations occur in the workplace; that’s a reality. Some conversations can be uncomfortable and perplexing for a whole range of reasons.

So being equipped with strategies and tools to help you navigate these situations is a good idea.

Knowing how to handle these conversations requires careful preparation, planning, evaluating your perspective of the situation, and entering the discussion to find a resolution. It involves empathetic listening, skilful questioning, and having strategies for managing unexpected responses from the other person – there is no guarantee how they will respond or react. 

The following 4-step framework provides you with a sequential process for handling the awkward conversation. For each step, there are script examples that you can use that will help you work towards and achieve a mutually agreed outcome. 

Step 1. Preparation: Purpose, Process, Outcome 

This first step involves determining the purpose of the conversation, the process you are going to follow (the next three steps) and deciding the outcome you want to achieve. In your preparation, you want to be clear about the issue you are managing. It is essential to consider other factors that will, directly and indirectly, impact on the quality and outcome of the conversation. For example, choosing an appropriate environment, having an open mind, and having the intention to go into the conversation as equals. 

The last point is critical. Having an awkward conversation, whether it is with your manager, your peer, or your team member, is not about using power over the other person. Prepare an opening statement which explains your purpose for the conversation and identifies the outcome you would like to achieve. 

Ask yourself: 

“What are my objectives for this conversation?” 

“What do I think is the other person’s position in this conversation? What reactions am I anticipating?” 

“What do I think the other person is going to say?” 

Prepare an opening statement and set forth your purpose for the conversation and the outcome you would like to achieve. 

Step 2. Beginning the conversation: Openers 

Open the conversation by reaffirming that you value the relationship, then explain your intention to maintain the integrity of the relationship, which is why you need to address an issue that needs resolving. It is essential to communicate the issue clearly as this reinforces why you organised the meeting. 

Opening statements: 

“It would be good for us to talk about ________. Do you have a few minutes to talk?” 

“I think we have different perspectives about ________. I would like to hear your thoughts on this.” 

Step 3. Keeping the conversation going 

Use the essential communication skills of listening, good questioning, providing feedback, and being open to receiving feedback. Aim to reach agreement on what the issue is and that both of you are responsible for finding a solution/resolution with the overarching goal to maintain the relationship. 

“Tell me why this is important to you.” 

“What would be a satisfactory way for us to resolve this together?” 

“What issue/s are we trying to resolve here?” 

“In hindsight, what do you think you or I could have done differently?” 

“How about each of us clarify in which ways we feel we have taken action to resolve this issue?” 

Step 4. Plan for action 

Conclude the conversation with a plan for “What next?” You lead up to this by summarising the key points and gaining agreement on the way forward. In this final step, it is good to both reaffirm commitment to working together. 

“So, we are agreed on what needs to happen next?” 

“What do you think the next step is?” 

“Given everything we have talked about, what do you think we need to do from here?” 

Within these four steps are other important considerations such as: 

  1. Identifying what led up to the conversation (the antecedents). There are several reasons why difficult conversations arise, poor communication being a common and key influence. Other causes can include people avoiding accountability, personality clashes, unclear expectations of behaviour, or the job role. 
  2. Timing of the conversation. Choosing when you have that awkward conversation is critical to its outcome. The last thing you should do is spring it on the unsuspecting person and expect to get a positive response. As I advise in step one of the 4-Step framework, preparation and planning for the conversation are just as important for the other person.
  3. Handling emotions (yours and the other person’s). Emotions have a significant impact on how people communicate with each other. You need to be aware of how the situation is affecting you, how you are feeling about it -and consider these points from the other person’s position. Using ‘I’ statements in your dialogue is an effective approach to managing the emotions that can be triggered. Although you may be tempted to say something like “You are not taking responsibility for your role in this project which is affecting our progress to finish it”, you will manage yours and the other person’s emotions (and therefore responses) by instead saying something like “I find it frustrating when you don’t complete your allotted tasks as this delays the project getting finished on time”. You have explained how their behaviour influences you, and importantly, the project’s progress. Also, you have referred to their role in the situation, so it focuses on specifics rather than emotions.

And if the conversation starts feeling like emotions are getting in the way of resolving the issue, you and the other person have every right to stop the conversation and take time out. What is important here though is that you need to return to the conversation; you don’t want to walk away to regroup your thoughts and never finish it. The issue certainly won’t be resolved that way. 


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