Tips and Analysis
Fri 16 May 2014

Difficult Conversations Subscribe Email Print

Written by Richard Matthews. Categories: Presentation analysis Tags: Conflict,

Having difficult conversations in the workplace is something we all find hard to do. The context can vary, from telling someone they’ve lost the promotion they’d worked hard for, breaking the news that a subordinate has lost their job, to making a colleague aware their behavior is having a negative effect on the rest of the team.


The good news is that there are a number of steps that can be taken to make this process a lot more constructive and manageable – not only for the person initiating the conversation, but also the one on the receiving end.


I spend a lot of my time watching business managers in a wide range of sectors making the same mistakes handling these types of conversations. My approach to helping them comes from a thirteen year background in commerce, managing trading relationships in the FMCG and airline sectors, combined with ten years work as a professional actor. Key to all good communication is the theory behind drama training: – listen, think, respond.


So here are five vital steps you should follow to ensure success:


Prepare!  - who is the person you are meeting? What do you genuinely know about them? Consider how they are likely to react to what you have to say. Then work out how your behavior may need to change to accommodate this and steer the conversation successfully.


Empathise! – empathy is important in any difficult conversation, but just evaluate to what degree. If someone is losing their job it is vital; if you have to pull someone up for negative behavior, you may judge it a smaller - though still relevant - tool in your strategy. But don’t be put off: we tend to find it hard to empathise in a business context, but there are many rewards of doing so.


Body Language! – be as open as possible. Minimize physical tension by trying to relax. Nerves are often one of the biggest reasons why difficult conversations are handled badly. So inhale and exhale slowly and deeply. Ensure good eye contact, and keep the pace of your delivery slow – this will calm you, and if the other person gets upset or angry, is a vital tool for calming them too.


Ears and Mouth!  - you have two ears, one mouth, so use them in that ratio! Let the other person into the conversation and don’t deliver a monologue. It happens so often, and always because of tension, and lack of preparation. Excluding the other person will likely raise their frustration and can lead to resentment.


Change your strategy! – managers tend to think out how they will handle the conversation in advance and exactly what they will say. And they stick to it, come what may! But difficult conversations rarely run to plan, so if your strategy isn’t working, acknowledge that and be ready to change it in the moment.


Genuinely effective communication is a tough art to master, no matter how well we think we do at it. Follow these five steps, and your business will be spending less time on the conversations it doesn’t want, and more on the ones it does.