It has been keeping you awake. You find yourself talking to the person in your head, ranting your way through the daily commute, unable to eat or sleep well, dreading the tough conversation you think you can’t avoid. If the thought of a difficult conversation sends you into an emotional tailspin, you’re not alone. But as we all know, avoiding talking about difficult subjects can wreck morale and turn the workplace toxic.
Conversations around poor work performance, unacceptable behaviour, bullying, feedback about professional development, unreasonable requests, grievances and disciplinary action can all be notoriously hard to handle. It’s never easy to talk about a sensitive subject, especially when the person you’ll be talking to might come back at you with strong, complicated or unpredictable emotions. It’s enough to make even the most talented leader, manager or mentor wince.
So how do you support others in a productive and meaningful way? And how can you protect yourself in the process? Here’s some advice to help you embrace the emotions behind difficult conversations, take the sting out of the experience, and boost your confidence.
Explore your own assumptions and biases
Your emotional state matters. Before you attempt a difficult conversation, take time out to explore your own feelings. Will the conversation really be as daunting as you imagine, or are your biases and assumptions getting in the way? Is it just that your values are different? Could the person you need to talk to actually be more receptive than you think? Do you really need to have the conversation in the first place? It’s a choice, after all, not an obligation. A bit of self-exploration beforehand might help give you a much more positive picture.
How to handle a difficult conversation
Preparation helps a lot. The more you prepare, the easier it is so control how you react when mired in the middle of a tough conversation. So first, know what you want to achieve from the conversation and think about how to present your side of the story. Find facts to support the message if you can. Check the data before you initiate any difficult conversation. Decide not to apportion blame. Figure out a way to explain clearly and calmly what’s going on and why you need to talk about it. And let the person know the result you’d like to see.
Let them have their say first – and consciously listen. It can be hard to focus when all you want to do is jump in and disagree, re-make your point, or talk over someone because they’re just not hearing you. It’s your job to listen more than you talk, to do your best to understand the other person’s point of view. Be curious. Ask open questions to find out more. Once you’ve reached a state of mutual understanding, you’re better able to empathise.
Getting to the bottom of things can be a highly emotive. It might feel scary encouraging someone to express their emotions, but it’s important. If you’re lucky it might be a relatively simple matter of them getting something off their chest. At the other end of the scale you could end up agreeing to disagree, finding an amicable solution that isn’t perfect but works reasonably well for everyone. Because you’ve both survived the experience unscathed, and you’ve both learned something, it was worth airing the issues openly.
Be good to yourself
Their feelings matter – but so do yours as the instigator of the conversation. Difficult conversations can get heated if someone feels hurt, confused, cross, threatened, not taken seriously or misunderstood. If things get heated you can always take a break to cool off. Take time to pause. It’ll probably benefit both of you to have some space to digest what’s been said so far.
Resist finding a darkened room to seethe in. In fact, don’t seethe. Take a walk, listen to music, have a something to eat, go do something completely different and don’t come back to the conversation until you’re both feeling calmer and more collected
How to manage strong reactions post-conversation
This conversation was out of your comfort zone, and you are experiencing a post difficult conversation emotional hangover. It was not an easy conversation. At the time you thought you reacted well, most maturely. But later, once you’ve gone through what’s been said in your head, you feel cross, upset, or sad. You’ll want to deal with this kind of emotional hangover otherwise it could fester.
Maybe set up an informal follow-up meeting to tie up any loose ends, letting the person concerned express the things they didn’t manage to get across at the time. Again, prepare for this meeting and go in with a clear, kind intention, knowing what you want to say.
Perhaps, privately put your thoughts down on paper and get the feelings out or set up a confidential talk with someone at work whom you completely trust who can help you process your reactions.
Above all, remind yourself though that the very act of kicking off a tough conversation involves courage. Nipping something in the bud can often save time and energy in the long run. Having difficult conversation is never easy for anyone. Being brave enough to address honestly and calmly what matters in your work context, paradoxically, tends to build trust with others over time. They know where they stand with you. Done with respect and care those tricky conversations can make a real difference.