June 21, 2021

Conflict exists everywhere—and the workplace isn’t spared. While some choose to tackle it head-on, others sweep it under the rug. A study found that 70 per cent of employers avoid having tough conversations due to uncertainty over the outcome and a lack of confidence. The fear of potentially offending someone is also a huge barrier. Yes, they can be awkward and tedious, but a leader cannot shun away from giving negative feedback, letting staff go, or resolving internal disputes among team members. If this has been a pain point of yours, be it learning how to manage emotions well or being level-headed, here are four tactics to help you master the art of difficult conversations.

Set a Positive Tone

Always be positive in your approach, so employees don’t become defensive and argumentative. If your staff has been underperforming, start the conversation in a casual manner by asking them how they are coping with work. Resist the urge to focus on the negative immediately. Ease in slowly by letting them know what you appreciate about them. Next, run through the KPIs together and ask them to provide ideas on how they can meet those targets. Instead of reprimanding, keep the conversation open. Ditch the sarcasm, be mindful not to raise your voice. Give them a chance to talk. Once you have heard their side, end on an uplifting note by suggesting areas of improvement. You want to inspire your employees to do better, not deflate their confidence. Positive non-verbal communication can go a long way during these conversations to make your employees feel comfortable. Make eye contact to show the person that you recognise the importance of what they are saying, or touch them lightly on the arm or shoulder to indicate that you are actively listening.

Be Specific and Factual

Before having any difficult conversation, make sure you are well prepared. Gather the necessary facts and points before addressing the issue—never rely solely on observations or speculation. The best leaders aren’t just an employer, but a mentor as well. Be precise and give concrete examples to minimise misunderstandings. If there is internal conflict among team members, make sure you have an overview of the situation along with accounts from both parties and those directly affected to determine the root of the problem. Being well-informed will help you make sound judgments without biases. American writer and thought leader Dale Carnegie is an expert in conflict management and self-improvement at work. His beliefs led him to start a performance-based training company with offices worldwide, and over 8 million people have attended his courses on how to improve workplace communication. The number one thing he teaches about problem-solving at work? Listen carefully and gather all your facts in an impartial manner.

Find the Right Setting

The choice of venue can be the key to having a more constructive conversation. For less serious matters, consider having a tête-à-tête over coffee or lunch, as it may ease tension or anxiety. Speaking to them outside the office without other colleagues around will also make them feel less conscious or embarrassed. However, if the issue is more complicated, which requires formal counselling or a detailed personal development plan, use a common meeting spot in the office. This could be either a conference room or a private meeting room. Speak to HR about the need to have appropriate venues for difficult dialogues to happen. Carving out safe spaces for both managers and subordinates to talk about challenges or areas of improvement can strengthen working relationships. Pro tip: create a resource group for employees to discuss their struggles or issues as they journey towards professional advancement. Research has shown that discussing workplace challenges can improve overall productivity. When employees feel a lack of support, it results in a greater prevalence of mental health issues such as depression, which can affect both their personal and professional life.

Be Empathetic and Understanding

If we want people to listen to us, we have to first listen to them. For an organisation to thrive, empathy needs to be at the centre of all tough conversations. Take the initiative to understand the other person’s side of the story and consider their point of view first. Ask questions before jumping to any conclusions, and acknowledge their emotions. Part of active, empathetic listening is also being able to paraphrase what they said and reflecting it back to them. This makes them feel heard and allows for a deeper conversation to take place. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden is a big fan of using empathy to solve problems. “We need our leaders to be able to empathise with the circumstances of others,” she said. A good way of wrapping up is to reiterate the purpose of the conversation, and how you will support them moving forward by helping them work on their weaknesses.