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Difficult conversations at work: 5 ways to take control

Published 13th September 2017 by Investors in People
Difficult conversation at work

However far you are in your people management journey, holding difficult conversations is never easy. But by using specific techniques and developing key skills, managers can take control of difficult conversations and stop them turning nasty. You may not be able to totally eliminate the discomfort of a difficult conversation, but handling them in the right way can lead to better outcomes for everyone involved.

How do you do this? We’ve come up with five ways managers can take control of difficult conversations in the workplace.

Self-regulation: being aware of your body’s reactions and expectations

Emotional self-awareness and self-regulation are important before and during difficult conversations. If you’re someone who runs out of breath when facing interpersonal conflict, focusing on a deep and smooth breathing pattern may help you remain calm. Or maybe your body language gets defensive (think sitting back with your arms folded) and that then influences your facial expressions and the way you talk.

Take time out to think about how you respond during interpersonal conflict and what you can do to manage yourself so that you can better control your response to what happens in the conversation. Visualising both positive and negative scenarios before you go in can help you adopt behaviours that will lead to the best outcome.

Visualising both positive and negative scenarios before you go in can help you adopt behaviours that will lead to the best outcome.

Understand how the brain responds to verbal threat

The CORE model is useful to understanding why some difficult conversations make people defensive and some don’t. Reward and threat are created in the brain based on either positive or negative stimuli to the following values:

  • Certainty: to what extent we can predict the future
  • Options: the extent to which we feel we have choices
  • Reputation: our relative importance to others
  • Equity: our sense that things are fair and just

Looking at these, it’s easy to see how having a difficult conversation about performance may make someone feel like their future is uncertain, because they could be fired. They may feel their options are suddenly limited in terms of internal career mobility, while their reputation as ‘top talent’ and a ‘safe pair of hands’ could be under threat. If they feel singled out or don’t agree their performance has been sub-par, they may feel the situation is unfair. All these things can trigger the threat response in the brain, which feels the same as the response to a physical threat, and can lead to defensive behaviour or stonewalling.

Use sensitive language to avoid triggering the brain’s defences

As we’ve seen above, the brain is very sensitive to threats and a good manager does all they can to avoid triggering the threat response. A good method is choosing the right language and one of the key choices you make is to avoid blaming the person’s character or creating the sense of a personal defect (presenting their behaviour as causing someone else to “feel hurt,” for example, rather than saying they “hurt someone else.”)

Where possible, problems should be characterised as acute rather than an inescapable fact of the person’s reality. For example, instead of labelling someone as an ‘underperformer,’ you could say that their results have been lower recently and you want to find out why.

Listen actively: treat it as an inquiry, not a defensive conversation

We’ve discussed active listening in our article on people management skills - it’s a core line manager skill but extremely important in difficult conversations. It involves seeking deep understanding, not waiting for your turn to speak, and repeating back in your own words what someone is trying to say as a genuine attempt to develop trust.

Part of active listening working well in difficult conversations is avoiding planning too much, which can make you loyal to a pre-determined agenda, rather than what the other person is saying and the organic, co-created development of the conversation.

Problems should be characterised as acute rather than an inescapable fact of the person’s reality.

Remember that it’s your skills, experience and genuine desire for a mutually-agreeable solution that will help the conversation run smoothly, not a rigid plan of what you want to say and what conclusions you want to draw.

Slow down the conversation: give people space to think

Managers may instinctively rush difficult conversations to get them over with as quickly as possible or to avoid giving the other party time to worry or come up with counter-arguments (depending on the manager).

But this can come across as controlling, or worse aggressive, and can look like an attempt to dominate the agenda. Instead, managers should slow down the conversation with their tone, pace and cadence. This can help create a feel that is more akin to an informal, relaxed conversation than a difficult one.

Giving the other person space and time to think is very important if you’re looking for a mutually-beneficial outcome, because they will then be able to answer truthfully and deeply, rather than simply as quickly as possible.