How to Prepare for a Difficult Conversation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Engaging in a difficult workplace conversation is one of those tasks that most managers and business owners would prefer to avoid. Yet the reality is that from time to time, workplace behaviour or performance will be below par and will need to be addressed. 

The key to conducting a challenging conversation at work that is both professional and productive lies in thorough preparation - the three W's of when, where, and what.

WHen is the best time to have the conversation?

Timing is everything when preparing to discuss a difficult issue. Ask yourself a deceptively simple question - why am I instigating this particular conversation right now? If the answer is that you are annoyed, aggravated or otherwise emotionally charged by an employee's behaviour or performance, then this can often be a bad time to attempt a challenging conversation. 

Difficult conversations that are planned and delivered in a calm and considered manner have a much greater chance of producing desired outcomes. Conversely, conversations that are started impulsively, out of anger or frustration can often lead to later accusations of abuse and unfairness. This is particularly so where no warnings or offers of support are given. 

Putting difficult conversations off indefinitely is not productive either. This may create the impression that the conduct is tolerated or accepted. So, ask yourself - is now the right time?

where should i hold the difficult conversation? 

Much like timing, you should carefully prepare the venue for these challenging work conversations. One golden rule is - not in front of a worker's colleagues. Entering a work station and immediately delivering difficult words can be seen as disrespectful or even as an abuse of power. 

In some workplaces, it might be best to email the worker and request that they come to your office or a designated neutral space. Depending upon the gravity of the topic of discussion, it might also be suggested that the worker bring along a support person. 

When you are anxious about the need to have a difficult conversation, you might prefer to just go for it on the spot and begin, but take a deep breath and ensure that the venue is appropriate.

what is the topic of the difficult conversation?

This again might seem like a question that has a simple answer. It might seem obvious to you that the problem is bad performance, bad behaviour - or both. Such general labels however can appear to be an attack on the person, with no real way for them to reply in a meaningful way. And broad admonitions to 'shape up or ship out' are not only unproductive performance guidance - they can be seen as real threats to a worker's employment and do not meet the requirements of reasonable management action. 

Try to have a basic agenda prepared and distil the 'what' of the discussion into two or three clear and succinct points. 

For example, the conversation might cover a tangible issue such as the three late starts since last Thursday; the 30% dip in sales since June; the four separate reports of disrespectful behaviour in the workplace. Specificity assists in driving a conversation that is fair, transparent and likely to deliver a sustainable outcome. 

Choose words which are neutral and not emotionally laden. Avoid descriptive words such as appalling, dreadful, bad or shocking. Try to be rational, measured and neutral in your language and approach. If you are able to deliver a clear and rational statement of what the employee has failed to do or what they have done wrong and invited a response, you are well on your way to having an open discussion and finding a resolution. 

And lastly - listen! A conversation, by definition, involves two or more people. Don't be tainted by pre-judgement.

DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS AS PART OF THE PERFORMANCE MANAGEMENT PROCESS 

Humans avoid conflict. We are community-based creatures and prefer to have things just tick along nicely. Yet these difficult conversations are important, having the overall goal of improving performance, getting to the bottom of troubling issues and smoothing the rougher edges of behaviour. 

Acting in anger is inadvisable, as are publicly-heard conversations and sweeping accusations. Clear guidelines for such communication should be set out in the organisation's policies and procedures, with training and resources available to assist. 

Should your difficult conversation form part of a performance management process, make sure that you are adhering to your organisations' relevant policies and procedures. This may include drafting a performance improvement plan if informal performance counselling is not effective. 

Without these structures, organisations are left open to complaints of unfairness or a failure to take reasonable management action. 

Expert help in getting it right

The reality is that difficult conversations are inevitable in the workplace, and it is important that they are conducted well. At WISE, we specialise in the management of workplace behaviour. We can investigate matters of misconduct, resolve conflict through mediation and provide consultation services for effective people governance. Call us at any time to discuss your requirements.  

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