4 Ways To Manage Difficult Conversations In The Workplace

Difficult Conversations in the WorkplaceAt some point in business we are all required to have difficult conversations in the workplace. They’re not easy, nor something that we look forward to. Whether it be chasing payment from debtors, dealing with unhappy customers or managing underperforming staff; at some point in your role in management, difficult conversations are inevitable.  

One of the greatest challenges, and the most difficult conversations in business that I have experienced, was during the 1991 collapse of the State Bank. I had just taken over my first Branch Manager role, managing 35 team members and trying to prove myself against a still present attitude that ‘women can’t be bank managers’.

On 6 February, after only one week in the role, I received a phone call at 7am Sunday morning from an Executive member at the Bank asking me to manage the Bank’s Call Centre for the day, staff with as  many employees as possible and ring all of our 4,500 employees, to advise them that the Bank was announcing a $2.2 billion loss and to expect there would be a run on funds the next day.  That loss was to reach $4.2 billion!

I quickly set-up a script for the team to use, to brief employees on what they would likely face the next day. We worked from 7:30 in the morning until 8 o’clock that night, to ring every single one of those 4,500 employees. I thought that day was challenging but it was just the beginning. The next day we had to go into the branch network, face our customers and have many more difficult conversations.  They were literally lined up down the streets to withdraw their life savings.

Whilst incredibly challenging, I learnt a lot from this experience. From this foundation, I have built a strong set of skills to help me confidently deal with difficult conversations in the workplace. I have summarised these skills into four different strategies that you can implement to help you manage challenging conversations. 

  1. Avoiding Confrontation Will Not Make It Go-Away  
  2. Be Prepared
  3. Don’t Take It Personally
  4. Find Opportunity In Adversity

I explain each of these four areas, and how they can help you manage difficult conversations in the workplace, in more detail below: 

1. Avoiding Confrontation Will Not Make It Go-Away  

Most people find confrontation difficult, so it is a completely normal response to procrastinate and hope the problem goes away. However, delaying and avoiding challenging conversations can make the issues escalate and the outcomes far worse.  In my experience, not having the confrontation means it plays over and over in your head, you tend not to operate as productively and it can keep you awake at night!  Dealing with it in a timely manner is the key, and your employees will see you as an effective leader and manager.  

2. Be Prepared

Possibly one of the most important aspects to successfully negotiating difficult conversations, is to be prepared. Like any business negotiation, you need to go into the conversation with a clear understanding of the outcome you want to achieve. Writing a script will help you stick to the key points you want to cover. Even if you don’t stick exactly to your script, this provides a good reference point and something to reign in the conversation, if you feel it heading in the wrong direction. Being very clear on your direction and outcome, will help you control how the conversation proceeds and reduce the likelihood of it deteriorating into a negative and unproductive discussion. 

3. Don’t Take It Personally

To bring your best communication skills to a difficult conversation, you need to manage your emotional responses, including body language. It is not un-common for difficult conversations to become emotional and this needs to be carefully managed because if you also become emotional in your responses, the conversation will deteriorate. By maintaining a calm and rational state, you will help steer the conversation towards your desired outcome. I have found applying a ‘firm but fair’ approach is most productive in these situations. Through this approach, you are compassionate and understanding of the other person’s perspective but also remain firm on your key points and direction for the discussion. The ability to genuinely look at the situation through the eyes of others, to demonstrate compassion even when delivering challenging information, is a skill that will help shape you into a respected leader. 

4. Find Opportunity In Adversity

As challenging as my experience with the State Bank collapse was, it also provided me with a huge potential opportunity. Instead of only looking at difficult conversations and challenges as negative situations, turn this around and look for the potential positives. Through my response to the Bank collapse, I was recognised as one of the few people to ‘turn the Bank on its head’, to help it become an organisation that was customer and sales focused. It is the people that stand up in adversity that we remember and it is the leaders that step-up during times of crisis, that make a real difference. 

Like all skills, your ability to handle difficult conversations will improve with practice. Implementing these four strategies will help you to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally, to better manage these conversations. Talking to others in management roles to gain their advice and experience can also provide great assistance. The opportunity for women to access support by way of peer coaching and mentoring for the challenges we face in business, was one of the key reasons why I established Behind Closed Doors. Through our network, you can draw on a wealth of experience from other businesswomen, to help you successfully navigate difficult conversations in the workplace. 


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  1. Pingback: How To Achieve Gender Equality & Close The Gender Pay Gap - Behind Closed DoorsBehind Closed Doors

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