3 Steps for Managers Preparing for Difficult Conversations

April 30, 2019 by  

During times of budget challenges, uncertainty in the industry, and changes in procedures or systems, supervisors might be experiencing an increase in the number of difficult conversations they need to have with their staff. These could include delivering bad news about an employee’s job, informing staff about work restructuring, describing changes to current procedures or systems or discussing other complicated and stressful work situations. In order to ensure that these exchanges are handled as well as possible and generally result in good outcomes, the following steps should be considered.
1. Prepare for the conversation
• Before opening the conversation, ask yourself several key questions. You may also want to consult with your Human Resources person, peers, or other appropriate resources to be sure you are comfortable with the answers.

Key questions include:
‐ What is the purpose of having this conversation?
‐ What do I hope to accomplish?
‐ What would be the ideal outcome?
‐ What assumptions am I making about the other person’s reaction to the conversation?
‐ What “hot buttons” could exist – for me and for the other person?
‐ How is my attitude toward the conversation contributing to the intended outcome?

Practice the conversation. You can mentally rehearse it in your mind, or practice it out loud with your supervisor, Employee Assistance Program, or Human Resources Manager. Get feedback on how they think this will play out with the approach you are using.

2. Arrange the conversation
• A successful outcome will depend on two things: what you say and how you say it. How you approach the conversation and how you behave will greatly influence what you say and how it is perceived. You must stay calm, honest, and respectful during the conversation.

• Acknowledge any emotional energy that might be fueled by the conversation. The emotional content is as important as the facts and must also be addressed.

• Keep aligned and focused on the purpose of your conversation. Don’t be distracted by side tracks.

• Suggestions for opening the conversation might include:
‐ I’d like to talk to you about. . .
‐ I want to better understand your point of view. Can we talk more about. . .
‐ I’d like to talk about ________. I think we may have different ideas on how to ______.

3. Working Toward a Successful Outcome
• Approach the conversation with an attitude of inquiry and discovery. Set aside assumptions and try to learn as much as possible about the other person’s point of view.

• Let the employee complete what they have to say without interruption. Then give them feedback to show that you respectfully listened and understood their point of view. You don’t necessarily have to agree however, you need to remain open-minded regarding their perspective. Saying “it sounds like this issue is very important to you” doesn’t mean that you have to decide the way they would like you to.

• Advocate for your position without diminishing theirs. State your position concisely and clarify points they may not have understood.

• End with problem-solving. Try to find mutual areas of agreement on solutions and identify what steps need to be taken to reach the desired outcome. If there seems to be no common ground, then return to the inquiry and ask more questions about their perspective.

If you take this honest, open and respectful approach to the difficult conversation you will be much more likely to end up with a satisfactory outcome for you and the employee.