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Difficult Conversations

Owners, managers, supervisors, and HR practitioners are often required to have difficult conversations with others, such as disciplining employees or having to talk to them about personal issues such as body odor. These conversations can be less stressful for everyone involved if those who initiate the conversations remember a few key things:

Why we communicate. We send messages to gain a desired response from the listener. When you have to initiate a difficult conversation, focus on the response that you want from the other person. Then create your message to get that response.

Your communication style. Think about how you communicate. Are you direct and brutally honest? Personable and like to keep things light? Tactful and sometimes indirect? Business-like and just stick to the facts? The truth is, you need to be a little of all four in order to get your desired response: direct, personable, tactful, and factual.

Fight or flee. When initiating a difficult conversation, you and the listener are probably going to experience the fight or flight syndrome. Remember to prepare, breathe, stay calm, and don’t attack or become defensive so that you will not only survive the situation, you will effectively communicate your points.

Needs. The listener is probably going to feel that his needs are being threatened:
• Physiological and safety needs (“am I going to lose my job?”)
• Love/belonging needs (“you don’t like me”)
• Esteem needs (“you don’t respect me”)
• Self-actualization needs (“this isn’t fair)

You can decrease this threat by:
• Carefully choosing where the conversation will be held (neutral, away from traffic) and seating arrangements (allow the listener to sit by the door)
• Using a soft entry to let the listener get prepared
• Being direct and straight-forward
• Allowing the listener to talk
• Determining with the listener how he can be successful

Example of difficult conversation – coaching to improve performance:
“Employee, as your supervisor it is my responsibility to help you be as effective as possible. Therefore, I need to tell you the following (lets the listener get prepared). Your directness sounds harsh at times, which hurts the feelings of some of your co-workers (direct and straight-forward). I think you will be much more effective if you soften your approach (tells how to be successful). What do you think?” (lets listener talk).

Example of difficult conversation – talking about a personal issue:
“Employee, I need to talk to you about a sensitive issue (lets listener get prepared). There are times that you dress somewhat provocatively, which detracts from your professionalism (direct and straight-forward). You will be much more effective if you wear clothing that is less revealing (tells how to be successful). Do you have any questions or concerns?” (lets listener talk).

Example of difficult conversation – talking about an employee’s failure to meet expectations:
“Employee, we need to talk about yesterday’s workshop (lets listener get prepared). The workshop ended 20 minutes late, which cut into the participants’ schedules (direct and straight-forward). Did something happen to prevent you from ending on time? (lets listener talk). Be sure to end your workshops on time in the future” (tells how to be successful).

Example of difficult conversation – talking about a policy violation with disciplinary action:
“Employee, I need to talk to you about yesterday afternoon (lets listener get prepared). You indicated in an email that you had a couple of glasses of wine at lunch (direct and straight-forward). Am I correct that you had been drinking? (lets listener talk). Being intoxicated at work is a violation of company policy; therefore, I am giving you a written warning. Please refrain from drinking during working hours in the future” (tells how to be successful).

Difficult conversations are not pleasant for anyone involved. However, a difficult conversation can make the difference between success and failure for a valued employee. Care enough to hold the difficult conversation.

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Disclaimer: The information and resources provided herein are not a substitute for experienced legal counsel and does not constitute legal advice or attempt to address the numerous factual issues that inevitably arise in any employment-related dispute. Although this information attempts to cover some major recent developments, it is not all-inclusive, and any recommendations are based upon HR best practices and procedures. We recommend you consult an attorney for legal guidance.

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