10 Tips on How to Handle Difficult Conversations

There’s no escaping it: if you work in HR you are going to have to handle some difficult conversations. Not only that, you also have to help others handle difficult conversations – line managers, senior management and maybe even the big boss could do with a little advice on this front.

A lot of people dread difficult conversations. Some even shy away from them, letting situations fester until they can no longer be ignored. By then, problems tend to be much bigger and harder to resolve.

According to the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), people hate tackling workplace conflict, even more than home-life conflict. Its research found that much of the UK workforce find it easier to end a relationship than ask their boss for a pay rise. The four hardest conversations bothering us are all work related. A third (33%) said asking for a pay rise was the hardest conversation, followed closely by talking about colleagues’ inappropriate behaviour (31%), feedback on poor performance at 30% and promotions (23%).

More than 50% of workers polled by CMI said they have to deal with difficult conversations at least once a month, yet 82% have never been trained in how to manage those conversations. As a result, 61% would like to learn how to handle those conversations more confidently. With that in mind, we have come up with 10 top tips on how to handle difficult conversations. These tips are relevant for you as HR professionals and also anyone with management responsibilities in your workplace.

1. Ditch the word difficult. Approach the conversation from a more constructive viewpoint. View it as a challenge that needs to be overcome, a problem that needs a solution, rather than just a difficult conversation.
2. Check your mindset. Are you feeling combative? Defensive? Critical? If you are, what can you do to dispel that? You should not be aiming to show the other person that you are right and they are wrong – or that their manager is right and they are wrong. You are looking for a solution to a problem.
3. Prepare. Know the facts about the situation. Not only will you feel more confident about tackling the issue and be better placed to do so, you will also have more credibility in the eyes of the other parties concerned.
4. Think about the desired outcome. Is it for a manager and employee to resolve their differences? Or is there such a personality clash that it would be better to find a different role for one of them within the organisation?
5. Don’t follow a script. If the other person feels you are just following a script they will feel very disenchanted. Make notes, but let the conversation flow naturally and maintain eye contact.
6. Think about the other person’s perspective and give them time to express it. It should be a two way conversation and their views are just as valid as anyone else’s. It is very easy to get sucked into one person’s perspective.
7. Actively listen. People often feel a whole lot better when they have been given the opportunity to vent their frustrations and know they have been really listened to. Not only that, you may glean some surprising and useful insights. You may even find your view on the whole situation changes.
8. Be compassionate. If the conversation is about redundancy or a big performance issue, remember that the other person is a human being with feelings. How such conversations are handled can make such a difference to how the person feels, how they view the organisation and the outcome of the conversation.
9. Delay if necessary. If a conversation is sprung on you and you would rather have some time first to think and prepare, then delay it. Suggest an alternative time.
10. Take stock afterwards. Learn from the experience. Think about what aspects went well, what didn’t go so well and where you could have handled the conversation better, ready for next time.