Guest post: How to make difficult conversations easier

In this month’s guest post, positive psychologist, coach and trainer, Lucy Whitehall, shares some tips on improving workplace communication by making difficult conversations easier.

Difficult conversation 2 people at table

It’s not uncommon to need to have a potentially difficult conversation in the workplace. What’s more common is the tendency to put off having these conversations; usually for fear of upsetting someone or creating more tension.

The problem is that by delaying addressing an issue, whether it’s under-performance, misconduct or a simple personality clash, it is instead left to fester, potentially becoming more of an issue than before. Ongoing problems in the workplace can lead to low morale, poor productivity and a generally less engaged workforce.

Instead, with a bit of careful thought and preparation, a potentially difficult conversation can in fact be a productive experience, with positive outcomes for everyone involved.

Here are a few things to consider:

1. Clarity

Why is it important to have this conversation? What is the change you want to see? Before you get started, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What exactly is the problem?
  • What exactly is the impact of the problem/behaviour/conflict?

Clear, simple answers to these questions will keep the conversation focused and avoid it spiralling off on tangents and other non-related grievances. It’s important to stick to one topic.

2. Action-oriented

Invite the person you are talking with, to help you identify the steps that would resolve the issue and any potential barriers to this. You may already have solutions in mind, but it’s important that any action plans are developed collaboratively, with the person involved fully on board.

It might help to schedule a follow-up meeting. This is not only to check that the agreed steps are being taken, but will also help the person involved feel supported to make the required changes.

3. Mindfulness

Before starting a conversation, take time to reflect on your own thoughts and assumptions about the situation. This will help you clarify the issue and its impact, and will also allow you to process any negative emotions attached to it beforehand. The conversation should be factual and proactive, rather than emotional and reactive.

Similarly, consider how the other person may feel about the issue. How would you feel if you were in their shoes? Keeping this in mind will help you approach the conversation in a way that engages them, rather than causing them to be defensive.

Continue this approach throughout the conversation by demonstrating a curiosity about their perspective and experience. Show them that this is a joint exploration and discussion, not an accusation or interrogation.

Giving prior notice of your intention to talk to someone and what about can also help them to reflect and prepare in the same way and prevent them from feeling ambushed, which detracts from the purpose of the conversation; problem-solving and resolutions.

4. Non-verbal Communication

Difficult conversations can be made easier by sticking to some of the basic rules of good communication, such as allowing for silences.

Many people feel uncomfortable with silence and try to fill it. But in this scenario they can be extremely useful in giving people time to process what’s been said and think about their response. Silences are particularly valuable if the person you are talking to is more introverted.

Your listening skills should also come in to play here. For the conversation to be productive, the other person must feel as though they are being heard and understood. Remember to ask clarifying questions, summarise what’s been said using phrases like, “from what you’ve said it sounds as though….” and don’t forget the importance of maintaining appropriate eye contact.

It’s also important to be aware of your body language. Simple things like leaning in towards the person you’re speaking to and maintaining an open posture will help them see the conversation as a joint exercise, rather than a confrontation.

Holding the conversation in a neutral environment can also help with this. Rather than calling them into your office, consider booking a meeting room or perhaps venturing out to a coffee shop, where both parties might feel on more even ground. Also, ttry not to have a desk or table in between you as this can create a barrier.

5. I Not You

The language we choose to use also has a big impact on the tone and outcome of the conversation. One simple tip to remember is to use “I”statements, rather than “you” statements.

For example, rather than saying “You embarrassed me when you said that to the client last week”, try saying “Last week in the meeting, I felt embarrassed when you disagreed with the client.” Owning our feelings about an issue by using “I” means the statement feels much less accusatory and is less likely to be perceived as a threat or cause a defensive reaction.

They may never be anyone’s favourite part of a job, but done right, potentially difficult conversations can have positive, productive outcomes at an individual, team and wider organisational level.

Lucy Whitehall is a professional Masters level coach, Positive Psychologist and trainer, specialising in workplace wellbeing and performance.

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