How to Handle Tough Conversations in the Workplace

Talking is easy, communicating is hard, especially in high-pressure environments like a workplace. Being an effective communicator means knowing how to handle difficult conversations - and that’s not as simple as it sounds.

Managers who are too confrontational or aggressive risk alienating their employees. But those who avoid tricky topics or shut down discussions appear incompetent and indecisive. Leaders have to find that balance so they can diplomatically resolve roadblocks and create an atmosphere of trust among their teams.

You can’t run away from difficult conversations. They’re a normal part of office life. Negative feedback, discussions about salary, rifts between employees - every workplace is littered with the potential for conflict. Learn how to deftly negotiate those clashes and you’ll see improvements in both employee satisfaction and productivity.

Talking to Your Team - 5 Steps to Tackling Tough Conversations:

1. Create a trustworthy and supportive workplace culture

Workplace culture isn’t just an airy concept devised by a company’s PR team. It’s a set of values and principles that should be modeled by all managers and team leaders.

In practice, getting workplace culture right means letting your staff know that they’re respected and supported. They need to feel that they can share their concerns and that any difficult conversations will be handled discreetly, professionally, and with compassion. In short, your team needs to be able to trust you.

2. Practice ‘radical candor’

First outlined in the 2017 book by Apple executive Kim Scott, radical candor is a management style based on compassion and empathy. The idea is to share feedback that’s kind, clear, sincere, and specific. As Scott puts it, “caring personally while challenging directly.”

This is an effective way to approach discussions that might become antagonistic. Start by reminding yourself that you’re talking to a person, not just an employee. Be empathetic about their challenges and balance any criticism with praise where appropriate. Don’t veer into brutal honesty or manipulative tactics, but stay calm, focused, and compassionate.

3. Structure the conversation

Free-flowing discussions often lose their way, so stay on track by clearly setting an agenda for your conversation. Allocate a certain amount of time to talk, take a few minutes at the start to share your objectives for the conversation (framing it as working towards a solution together), and don’t let your meeting stray off-topic. 

In some situations, it may also be helpful for both participants to make some notes beforehand. Preparing what you want to say makes you less likely to get distracted or emotional. You’ll also benefit from clearly defining the issues and possible solutions - switching from conflict mode into collaborative problem-solving.

4. Listen and reflect

Difficult conversations are best framed as an opportunity to learn and improve. But you can’t learn if you don’t listen. It’s tempting to go into tough discussions with a ready-made speech, deliver it, and consider the matter closed, but it’s a conversation, not a presentation. 

This is where managers need to sharpen their active listening skills - and not just listen, but hear, engage and reflect on what’s being discussed. This will help your employee feel validated and pave the way towards a mutually-acceptable resolution.

5. Be proactive

Left unattended, small issues have a way of developing into big problems. Managers can break this cycle by proactively checking in with their team. Schedule regular, no-agenda short chats with your staff so they can bring things to your attention as they arise. This is especially helpful for remote teams who can become isolated when working in silos. 

Know when it’s time to have those tough conversations with employee productivity monitoring solution Prodoscore. The intuitive platform seamlessly integrates with your company’s cloud-based tools to give managers visibility into how their team works. By collecting data on how your staff interact with their business apps, Prodoscore allows leaders to spot when team members may be struggling and when they need extra support to stay on track. People-first management relies on accurate data and effective communication. Get in touch today to schedule a demonstration and see how Prodoscore can help.

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