For Managers


Overcoming the Fear of Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations are a fact of life for leaders—even the best leaders. However, when navigated properly, they can actually be a pathway to growth and success for teams.

As a leader, conversations with your team are the key to success for both you and your team. In order to accomplish anything, not only do conversations have to take place regularly, but they must also be effective, plain and simple. However, when issues arrive and necessary and crucial conversations either aren’t happening or aren’t effective, productivity, morale, retention, and revenues can suffer. These statistics speak volumes about the importance of effective conversations in the workplace:

  • 28% of employees report that poor communication affects their timely completion of tasks.
  • 97% of employees report that communication affects their work on a daily basis.
  • 86% of employees and leaders feel the absence of the right kind of communication and collaboration (which is highly dependent on communication) is the main reason for failures at work.

While workplace conversations are essential, not all are easy to facilitate for a variety of reasons. Each team member—leaders included—comes from a variety of backgrounds, experiences, values, perspectives, work styles, preferred communication styles, beliefs, and so on, creating an underlying and potentially unrecognized layer for any conversation before it even begins.

11 Tools for Navigating Difficult Conversations

When it comes to having difficult conversations, remember that there are three perspectives to any issue in the workplace: Your perspective or that of the employee who lodged a complaint, the employee with the issue, and the truth. Another thing to keep in mind is that while these conversations can understandably evoke fear, the antidote to fear is action. 

Here are 11 tools you can use to help you take action and successfully navigate any hard conversations that might become necessary on your team.

Don't avoid them. Avoidance only allows any issues to fester since they won’t magically solve themselves without intervention on your part. When we avoid addressing an issue, not only will it not help the employee with the problem, but it can hurt the entire team as well, including the loss of respect and trust your team will have in you as their leader. 

Holly Week, author of Failure to Communicate, explains it this way: “Dodging issues, appeasing difficult people, and mishandling tough encounters all carry a high price for managers and companies—in the form of damaged relationships, ruined careers, and intensified problems.” So, no matter how uncomfortable, awkward, and difficult a conversation might be, it’s crucial to have that conversation, and the following tools can help.

Nurture trust with employees from day one. One study found that where trust exists, employees report the following: Engagement increased by 76%, stress decreased by 74%, productivity increased by 50%, burnout decreased by 40%, and sick days decreased by 13%.  

When trust is a foundation for your team, engagement and productivity can increase and burnout, stress, and absenteeism can decrease, making it more of a reality that your team will function successfully, potentially eliminating the need for most difficult conversations in the first place.

Learn how to create + increase trust through 1:1 conversations here.

Prepare, prepare, prepare. Before engaging in a difficult conversation, make sure you are ready with as many concrete facts as you can gather, then look at the situation from all available angles to get a true picture of what is potentially going on, and then prepare for the conversation as much as possible so you approach the conversation with calmness, knowledge, and the proper direction to solve the problem. 

Instead of rehearsing how you think the discussion should go (which is probably unrealistic), write down a few goals for the conversation, and make them the main focus to keep the conversation on the right track.

Listen. Really listen. Put aside your own thoughts, beliefs, experiences, and ideas for how the conversation should go and listen with empathy to the employee. You might discover aspects of their life—both at work and at home—that you weren’t aware of that can be vital to better understanding the situation and for coming up with solutions. Before replying, pause to give yourself time to think about what’s been said and to respond as positively and effectively as possible.

Want to improve your listening skills? Learn how here.

Choose the setting carefully. Select an environment for the conversation that will be as comfortable as possible and away from others. Difficult conversations are hard enough without the potential of unwanted listening ears “joining” the conversation. 

Leave your emotions outside the office door. Emotions can add an unnecessary level of bias to the conversation and can potentially inflame the discussion, which can damage the successful conclusion of any conversation. If an employee blames you in any way for the issue, try to not take it personally. Keep your cool, deescalate the situation, and get back to the needed conversation.

Here is one exception: It is important to bring the emotions of empathy and kindness into the conversation.

Watch your body language. Communication is 55% nonverbal, and when a hard conversation must take place, you want as much of your communication to be as positive as possible. During the conversation, pay attention to your body language: Don’t slouch, maintain eye contact, don’t cross your arms, have a pleasant countenance, and so on. Let your body language help to put the employee at ease instead of on alert.

Acknowledge what they’re doing right. It can be easy to only focus on the negatives when, more often than not, there are some positive things the employee is doing that you can bring into the conversation. Focusing on the positives first can help both you and the employee feel more at ease, making it easier to then discuss any problems. 

Keep confidences. Office talk can spread like wildfire, even with a high level of vigilance on your part. And if you’ve ever played the telephone game, you know that truth can turn into gossip quickly, which can damage the entire team as well as other team members’ perspectives of the employee with the issue. Make sure each employee understands from day one that you can keep confidences and that the team is a safe place for everyone.

Follow up. Having hard conversations is not a one-and-done occurrence, so it’s important to regularly check back in with the employee to gauge their progress and to get any needed feedback to ensure that any issues are resolved and that the employee is successful. This also demonstrates your continued interest in and value for the employee.

Consult HR. Depending on the type, difficulty, or subject of the needed conversation, make sure you’re following company policies and procedures: When is a witness necessary? What type of documentation is required? And so forth. Your HR department can be a helpful source for feedback, so when in doubt (or even when you’re feeling confident), consider discussing or even role playing the conversation with an HR rep and then adjust as needed.

Frequent and effective conversations with your team are a part of leadership. Difficult conversations are also part of being a leader, even though they can be tricky to navigate. However, when handled correctly, difficult conversations can be a pathway to growth and success for companies, leaders, teams, and each team member.

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