Understanding And Combatting Tough Conversations

September 22, 2020
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By Jaco Kriek, Director at Search Partners International / AltoPartners South Africa

Let’s face it, no one enjoys conflict and often we try our best to avoid it all together. However, keeping our heads buried in the sand is not an option when a tough conversation needs to happen for things to move forward. These types of conversations can take place in many parts of our lives – family, friends, work – and knowing how to handle them correctly is half the battle won.

Tough conversations are never easy, that’s why they are called tough. But knowing the way in which to get your message across without putting the other person in an even more uncomfortable situation, is a step in the right direction. These conversations need to be handled delicately, without pointing fingers and making accusations. An example of such a conversation is one between a manager and an employee.

Often managers excuse certain actions of an employee hoping that it won’t happen again, just so that they can avoid having a conversation. However, more than likely, the same action is repeated, putting the manager in a position where having the conversation is crucial to the health of the company. A manager shouldn’t be nervous about talking with an employee about their work, just as an employee shouldn’t be nervous about having a conversation with their manager. There should be an accepted and practiced environment of candour and accountability within the company, letting employees know that should there be a need for a conversation to happen it will be done within a safe environment.

These difficult conversations need to be dealt with in such a way that everyone feels comfortable and respected, and this can be achieved by putting the following tips into practice:

1. Be honest. There is no need to sugarcoat the message and fumble around the point. This will only cause confusion and take longer. Be respectful and open. Make use of facts only, limiting the chances of misunderstanding.

2. Do your research. Make sure that you have all the information you need before having the conversation. Don’t rely on the notorious “he said, she said” – have the facts ready to refer to while having the conversation.

3. Have a solution. If you are making a comment about something an employee has done, have a solution as to how you can fix it, together. Instead of referring to a list of things that they have done wrong, turn it into a conversation where a solution will be the final result. Listen. Allow feedback around the topic. Give the employee a chance to explain themselves and take accountability.

4. Be human. Start the conversation with a human touch, such as “I have been noticing gaps in your performance. Are you alright?” Don’t be afraid to ask questions and listen to what your employee has to say.

5. Trust is earned. Don’t expect your employee to trust you during your conversation if an environment of trust was not cultivated beforehand. Trusting each other goes a long way in making difficult conversations easier.

6. Find a quiet location. These conversations should not be had in front of the entire office. Find a location where you won’t be disturbed, and only invite the individuals to the meeting who need to be there. This needs to be a safe place, where everyone involved feels comfortable. Have frequent conversations. To avoid being uncomfortable during these conversations, more conversations should be had during working hours. This creates a relationship between everyone, and a sense of trust and calmness.

Being able to have candid conversations with an employee shouldn’t cause anxiety, and one way to combat this is to have an environment of encouraged openness, candour and accountability. This will make having conversations easier and more productive without the employee feeling accused and attacked. The aim of these conversations is to a find a solution, not to embarrass.”

Related Practice

Leadership Consulting