7 Strategies to Destress Difficult Conversations

“Sorry, there’s no raise for you this year.”

“We have a new benefits package – with a co-pay increase of 200%.”

“The company is restructuring, and your position is … changing.”

“I’m afraid that your work hasn’t been meeting expectations.”

Ever had to have a conversation like this, and found the words sticking in your throat? It’s not easy to initiate and lead a difficult conversation at work, but managers and supervisors find themselves needing to do it regularly. It’s definitely a soft skill that managers need to develop.

There are endless situations where the conversation may feel uncomfortable, for both the manager and the employee. While we can’t help you remove these situations from your workplace, we can help you develop skills and strategies that can take some of the sting out of having to address them.

Do your homework. Don’t go in there and think you’re going to wing it and it’s going to go just fine. Guess what, it probably won’t. Make sure you have all the facts at your fingertips – literally, bring printouts. Bring any necessary documentation with you to have on hand. Review them prior to the meeting so any relevant stats or data are readily available to you. Spend some time doing a practice run, so you can feel the flow of what you need to say and have the opportunity to edit your thoughts.

Set the scene and lead the conversation. You’re in charge, so take control. It’s up to you to create the right environment for your conversation, one that will allow the employee or team member to feel comfortable and safe. You set the pace of the conversation, and it should be focused, but not rushed.  For potentially emotional conversations, make sure you have a private space to meet in, and have tissues and water on hand. Give them time to process information, and if appropriate, offer to meet again later to discuss further if they need time to compose themselves.

Get down to business. Don’t spend time chit chatting. Once you get past Hi, you can get right into it. Your employee will appreciate it. They know this isn’t cocktail party chatter – you’re sitting down behind closed doors for a reason.

Stick to the facts. Don’t editorialize. If the employee is getting a warning for poor performance, share the specifics of the work that wasn’t up to scratch. Don’t include unrelated issues, or anecdotal information that may not be directly relevant to the performance issue. This is not the time to bring up the stinky lunches they eat at their desk every day.

Listen. This conversation is not a one way street. You definitely have information to pass along to them, but you should be prepared to listen to what they have to say. You may not be able to do much with this information, depending on the situation, but hear them out, be patient, and show compassion.

Take a moment. Before the meeting begins, take a few minutes to yourself. Do some deep breathing and have a little time to de-stress. You’ll feel better and more in control when the conversation begins.

Document the conversation. Nothing will add to your stress more than having HR come in two weeks later and ask you for details on your meeting and you don’t really remember them. Take a few minutes post-meeting to write down what happened, so you have an accurate contemporaneous record.  This is particularly important if you’re working with an employee toward behavioral changes. Depending on the circumstance, you may want to send a recap to the employee as well.

Learn more strategies to handle difficult employees and conversations with the webinar Managing Difficult Employees: 15 Cornerstones for Handling Constructive Confrontations.

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