Practical Tips for Managing Challenging Conversations

Challenging conversations can be one of the most daunting tasks a manager faces, with 50% citing difficult conversations as their biggest challenge. It’s a statistic reinforced by HR managers, who when surveyed, said only 21% of managers in their organisation are confident at addressing difficult situations.

It can be tempting to avoid a difficult conversation and bury our head in the sand.  The impact of this is a signal to others that we are happy to tolerate the behaviour or underperformance in question. Our responsibility as a leader is to take a stand for the standards, quality and the values of our organisation, and by role modelling these we enhance our leadership image.

The most important way to begin the process is to re-frame the conversation in your mind. It’s only ‘difficult’ if we make it that way. ‘Labels’ do set us up to react to situations and it may be that the conversation is instead going to be ‘testing’ or ‘defining’ or ‘appropriate’ or ‘a long time coming’ or even ‘cathartic’. In some sense it is worth highlighting that the conversation is needed and it’s actually an opportunity to start putting things right or at the very least putting the issue behind us and moving on.

Do not forget, a key role of the leader is to enable someone to achieve in their role, and giving feedback is a chance to add value to that individual’s future. You are not telling that person off but helping them get back on track as quickly as possible.

It may be obvious, but it is also important to remember to avoid giving corrective feedback when we’re still feeling aggravated, frustrated or angry by the behaviour that needs correcting!

Take a breath, and before you begin, ask yourself:

  • Have I got all the facts?
  • Be responsible – what have I done to contribute to this situation?
  • Was the information clear?
  • Were expectations set?
  • Was thorough training provided?
  • Was I adding to an already heavy workload?
  • Is there anything else going on with this person?
  • Where am I going to have this conversation? (Find somewhere private)
  • Whether it’s online or in-person make sure you have set aside time so there are no interruptions or other distractions. If it’s online don’t be doing other things whilst they are talking – no typing, looking at emails that pop up or texts.
  • Unless the situation is really dire, go into the meeting believing the other person can change.

   Once you’re having the conversation:

  • If you want a motivated team member at the end of the conversation always start with praise and end with encouragement.
  • Put your feedback into context – what are they doing well already? Find opportunities to highlight strengths in the individual – sometimes knowing that others see strengths in them prevents them from being challenging.
  • Set the tone. Think about the language you are using – ‘ I need you to’, ‘I’m here to tell you’, ‘With all due respect’, ‘What I want’, can be perceived by some people as challenging. Alternative phrases could be, ‘Let’s go over’, ‘Let’s look at how we can’, ‘Possibly you could’, ‘Understanding different views…’.
  • Call attention to any mistakes empathetically and diplomatically; this will help them ‘save face’.
  • Consider showing your own vulnerability by sharing a time you made a mistake, demonstrating nobody is perfect and it’s a natural part of development.
  • Remember this is a conversation, not an instruction. Use it as an opportunity to coach them to improve and learn.
  • Listen, let them do a great deal of the talking.
  • Ask guided open questions­ to help the other person come to a conclusion for themselves – if they figure it out it prevents us from ‘being the bad guy’.
  • Encourage them to work out how they can do things differently in the future.
  • Ask what additional support do they need, but do not say, ‘How can I help?’. This puts the responsibility back on the manager, when you actually want them to make a change.
  • Use “feedforward” in place of “feedback”. Feedback is based on the past which cannot be changed, whereas feedforward is advice for the future.
  • End by thanking them for sharing their commitment, offering words of encouragement and giving them a positive reputation to live up to.

    And finally,

Always and continually invest in trust. Without trust it becomes almost impossible to have a positive win-win outcome from a difficult conversation.

There is more information about improving communication and providing feedback without insulting your workers on our website.

In-house workshops are also available on this subject. Contact a member of our team to find out more.