Executive Report

Dealing with Difficult Conversations

No one really enjoys having difficult conversations, but as a business owner or leader they are vital in keeping your organization and team healthy.  Initiating and managing volatile conversations are leadership skills that will be practiced and perfected over time – and they will be needed more than you think. Learning to hold and defuse tense conversations, where one or more people are upset and or angry, and where there is blame and discomfort, can sometimes feel challenging. You may wonder why otherwise seemingly competent adults can’t work out their issues and disagreements themselves. On the surface, this seems like a valid stance to take. But without a strong competent leader guiding the conversation, all parties may not feel heard and understood, which can lead to resentment, frustration and an escalation of the unresolved issues. And that will impact performance and ultimately, your company or team success.

Here are three things to consider in order to maintain open and productive conversations when dealing with conflict within your organization:

Step 1: Acknowledge the Situation

The first step is to acknowledge the situation without delay. I love the phrase “What you ignore becomes more” because there is so much truth to that.  When you become aware that someone on your team is upset, or that their behavior has changed in a detrimental way – address it as soon as possible without waiting for them to bring it to you.  Schedule a meeting with that person to have a private conversation about the situation, their behavior and/or their reaction.  When you meet with them, you want to acknowledge what you have observed, or has been brought to your attention. I like to start all formal conversations with an upfront contract where I confirm why we are meeting, how long we have agreed to meet, and what the desired outcome is. Start with asking why the situation or behavior is happening and then let them speak without interrupting. Your meeting might start like this: “Thanks for meeting with me, Taylor. I invited you to this 15-minute meeting to discuss something that I need your help with.  I’ve noticed that you have been late 10 minutes or more to our daily team meetings on 4 occasions over the last 2 weeks.  Can you help me understand why so that we can decide how to handle this?”

Step 2: State What You Observed

The second step, after setting your upfront contract and stating your observations is to shut up and listen. And to be clear – you are listening to understand, not to reply. It may take a while for the other person to answer and that is okay.  Your job is to address the issue directly, create an opportunity for the team member to give you an explanation, and then figure out what next steps are. You can do this with compassion and empathy, but until you listen to what they say – you will not know if compassion and empathy are even warranted.  There may be some personal issues that are impacting their behavior, attitude and performance that have not been shared with you.  Maybe they have a lack of interest in their role or in the company.  Or maybe they don’t have the necessary skills or authority to do what needs to be done, and they were hesitant to bring that to you for fear of embarrassment or reprisal.  Each of those reasons will require different responses from you. Unless you allow your employee the space and time, they need to clarify why they are behaving in a way that is inconsistent with your expectations, you will not be able to solve the problem on your team.  Listen to their words, their tonality, and their body language. Are there signs of defensiveness, frustration or fear? Do you see someone who wants to do the right thing and is pleading for help? Or is there apathy and a sense that they have mentally checked out?  Use what you observe for follow up questions. Great communication relies on the whole of the message – words, tonality, and body language – so don’t ignore what is unspoken in favor of what is stated.  Keep in mind, you may need to deal with the emotions first to get to the intellectual.  In other words, your employee may be reacting emotionally to avoid dealing with something intellectually.  Use follow up questions as needed to get to the “why?” of their behavior.

Step 3: Find a Resolution

Finally, once you’ve actively listened and feel that you that have a good understanding of the root cause of the problem, it’s time to resolve the issue without making it personal. Decide what the end goal is and if any further action needs to be taken. Has this problem been addressed simply by acknowledging the situation, listening to the employee, and creating a sense of understanding?  Does there need to be a follow up meeting or additional steps taken? Do other people need to be addressed or become involved?  Is there missing information that needs to be gathered?  To close the meeting, summarize the conversation and clearly state what, if any, next steps are for you and for them. Agree to completion dates and schedule additional actions on your calendars right then. If no further action is needed just restate your expectations, what the employee has committed to changing to resolve the issue going forward, and what will happen if changes do not occur.

Every crisis starts with a conflict. As leaders, we need to be aware of conflicts within our organizations.  Some are apparent, and some are buried under the surface.  We need to be more proactive in looking for the uncomfortable conversations because the silence can be a false mask for what is actually happening within our companies.  We should be asking ourselves and our team leaders: what are some things that people are not talking about, that they should be?  And then we should listen.

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